THERE’S A GROWING Irish influence on the Top 14, whatever about Johnny Sexton’s return to Leinster from Racing 92 this summer.

While James Coughlan and his Munster mates at Pau attempt to make an impact on the top flight after their promotion from Pro D2, the lads over at the foot of the French Alps will be hoping Grenoble can push into the top half of the table in 2015/16.

Centre Chris Farrell in action as Grenoble hammered Connacht in pre-season. Source: T.Bianchin/FCG

Bernard Jackman’s men kick off their season with a home clash against newly-promoted Agen on Saturday (KO 5.30pm Irish time), and their three Irish players will be hoping to have some involvement.

Scrum-half James Hart is heading into his fourth season with the club, while loosehead prop Denis Coulson and centre Chris Farrell are now in their second year at FCG.

22-year-old Farrell had an excellent first campaign in France, featuring strongly in Grenoble’s league games, with many of his starts coming in the 13 shirt.

“I was very happy, I don’t know if I expected it to turn out the way it did,” says 6ft 4ins and 108kg Farrell.

An Ireland U20 international in 2012, Farrell looked set for big things at Ulster before he effectively had two seasons wiped out by a cruel run of injuries.

By the end of the 2013/14 campaign, the ex-Campbell College man was looking for a change of scene and though he had options in England and with one of the other Irish provinces, Jackman’s offer of a “fresh start” in Grenoble was too tempting to refuse.

The decision has been a hugely successful one for Farrell, given the amount of game time he has racked up and the style of rugby Grenoble play – one that allows him to express his attacking strengths.

Farrell was highly rated in Ireland before seeking out a fresh start. Source: T.Bianchin/FCG

“It fits me well and it’s the kind of game plan that I love. When we get space we’ve got dangerous players like Gio Aplon at fullback, we can link very well. It’s exactly what I like.”

Coulson had a similarly positive first season with the Top 14 outfit, although his career is at an earlier stage than Farrell’s. Still just 21, Coulson made his debut for the club in the most intimidating circumstances possible.

Pitched into the front row for 30 minutes against Toulon at their Stade Mayol fortress last November, Coulson swam rather than sank and went on to make five more first-team appearances over the remainder of the season.

Another former Ireland U20, Coulson first worked with Jackman at St. Michael’s College. The prop was a fifth year when he won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in a Dan Leavy-captained team, and with ‘Birch’ part of the coaching staff.

Jackman moved on to Grenoble but stayed in touch with Coulson, who was part of the Leinster sub-academy in the same season he played for Ireland U20s. It became apparent, however, that the long list of loosehead class in the province meant there would be no senior contract for Coulson last season. Again, Jackman provided an outlet.

“Birch rang me and I was in my hotel in Auckland at the (2014) Junior World Championship,” says Coulson. “It was my birthday and we had just qualified for the semi-finals of the World Cup, we’d just beaten Fiji.

“He rang me as I was about to go and meet my parents, and he said ‘there’s an opening here, would you like to come?’ I went down to the lobby of the hotel and told my parents I was going to France.”

Having initially joined on academy terms, Coulson soon signed an espoirs deal (similar to a development contact in Ireland) that will keep him at the club until 2017 at least and means he is a permanent part of the first-team squad.

Coulson on the rampage for the Ireland U20s in 2014. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Indeed, Jackman, Farrell, Hart and backs coach Mike Prendergast are all tied to the club until 2017. Perhaps a move home en masse awaits in the future? For Coulson, the focus is simply around building on last’s season’s exposure.

“I just want to play as much as I can,” says Coulson. “I’m still considered relatively young, so I want to play as much as I can, whether it’s off the bench or starting. I’ll still look to reap the rewards of any of the academy matches I play in and always look to learn.”

24-year-old place-kicking scrum-half Hart is the relative elder statesmen of the small Irish crew in Grenoble at this point, having joined Jackman in making the move from Clontarf to the Top 14 in 2012.

Hart was something of a sensation in the 2013/14 season, starting 16 times in the league and scoring 39 penalties, 15 conversions and a try. Such was his form that calls from Ireland came for the ex-Leinster underage cap to be involved in the international squad.

Last season saw Hart jolting back to earth as a serious disc injury in his back forced him to miss the start of the campaign, allowing new signing Charl McLeod to go on to nail down the nine shirt.

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Still, 20 appearances last season is no mean feat from Hart, and Jackman and Prendergast have high expectations of him. A relentless work ethic means the Dublin native, whose mother is French, will push hard again for a starting spot in the coming months.

If he can get back to that form of 2013/14 and build on it, does Hart see a way for a France-based Irishman to catch the attention of Joe Schmidt?

Hart is a well-established part of the Grenoble squad. Source: T.Bianchin/FCG

“I think you’ve just got to accept you’re in France for now,” says Hart. “Clearly if you’re setting the world alight you might have a chance but if they’re solid in one position I would feel they’re not going to look overseas.

Instead, this trio of ambitious young Irishmen will maintain their focus on helping to make Grenoble a top-six club and go from there. Hart is realistic but always awake to the possibilities consistently good form could bring for himself, Farrell and Coulson.

“I don’t think anyone would lie to you and say that it’s not their dream one day to come back to the provinces and play for Ireland.”

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