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Davidson is planning a return to Ulster in the future

David Kelly

He lives not just in the middle of nowhere, but 600ft above the middle of nowhere, where the summer nights are just as cold as those of winter. The area in which his house nestles was once a hub of volcanic activity; now dormant.

This is Aurillac. In the middle of nowhere. And this is where Jeremy Davidson lives.

Long becalmed himself, if ever the man voted best player of the 1997 Lions series could ever be guilty of tending to eruption, despite a premature, injury-enforced retirement at just 27.

Now he is 42, as he sighs when you remind him of the approaching 20th anniversary of that famous tour.

"I was just talking to my wife last night about how people cope with life after rugby," said the Dungannon man.

"God, I'm old. Twenty years. My goodness. A long time ago. I see the likes of Joost van der Westhuizen gone. That's what I think of now. Axel. It's crazy.

"I was happy with what I achieved. Maybe I'm different, I took what I could get. I look at Ciaran Scally, who had the rugby world at his feet but had to retire at 19.

"I took it on the chin and moved on. There's no point in looking backwards. If one avenue closes, hopefully another one will open."

His door is always open but hard to find. Then again, Aurillac, where he coaches a French Division Two side consistently punching above its weight, is mostly out of sight. So he is out of mind.

Which is not hard, given its position; no TGV serves its station and it is the least accessible major town in France by road.

Davidson has had stints with Castres and watched as his former partner, Mark McCall, went on to dominate England and Europe with Saracens.

He remains only vaguely linked with Irish gigs, but perhaps an accent which had less Tyrone and more Taranaki might cut it more back at home. Just as well he is in no rush.

"It would be great," he said. "It's not that long since I've been at Ulster. If you go back to a club, you have to come back a new person, a fresh person with new ideas and different outlooks.

"It's very important for coaches to go away somewhere else. Every day is a school day, no matter what position you have. You endlessly are looking for solutions to get a competitive advantage. "I would like to get home eventually but I'm in no real rush either. My attitude is that when I eventually return home it will be a day that counts and every day after it will be a day that counts, because I've learned so much.

"Most coaches' downfall is trying to get somewhere too quickly as opposed to taking their time and going when the time is right. I've been lucky to find my feet here, achieved some success and it has given me a great grounding.

"Whenever the time is right, it will be right. I could move on now but maybe better to move on when somebody wants me!"

What is for him won't go by him. Jono Gibbes left Clermont for Ulster, and Clermont immediately re-awakened the interest they had in 2013 before Gibbes joined them. They would have to fork out some wedge to Aurillac as an exit clause expired last month, but they have the money.

"I've had a wee bit of interest, I don't know if it will go any further, that is between the clubs and my president," said Davidson. "It is flattering whenever you get phone calls asking you to go to the next level. I'd like to get back up there.

"I've been here six years now and each year we have punched above our weight. So it would be nice to get the chance to step up and add value to a big club."

Aurillac could have joined the big boys last summer but lost the play-off final to Bayonne, a side with three times their playing budget of €4.5m.

Forget Leicester City or Connacht, this would have been a true sporting miracle.

"Wouldn't it have been great? We had ambitious recruitment lined up and I would have been confident we could have punched above our weight," said Davidson.

"Traditionally, this is not where the young up and coming French players would come. It was once the 'African' province, there were 17 South African players here at one stage.

"So when I arrived it was very difficult to get young players. Cold, no money. The middle of nowhere. It's changed now. We don't have players beating down our doors, but we're at least a more acceptable option.

"I would have relished the chance - you dream of taking a team with the 14th lowest budget up to face the giants of teams with €30m and more."

This season has been a difficult hangover; they can't buy a win away from home but they are still in the promotion shake-up alongside fallen giants Perpignan and Biarritz.

"This league is so competitive, it is so difficult to win away from home especially with the squad we have," he explained. "It is very young - we have lost seven players, six of whom were really experienced.

"So we have to let these guys grow and not expect too much and we have had injuries also.

"We haven't been able to play at our highest level yet. Having said that, we have the easier teams at home towards the end of the season and we have a couple of opportunities away from home to try and get back up the league.

"It's not a massive failure to be where we are because we are always punching above our weight. It's transitional and we have a high average of Academy players ahead of a new rule that is coming into French rugby."

Like the surrounding dormant mountains, Davidson has long been at peace, particularly with the manner in which a knee injury sadly curtailed the playing career of one of this island's most gifted forwards.

If he is bitter about not receiving the acclaim he should for his coaching achievements in his home, he doesn't exude it, content in his temporary exile, even if, one day, longing for a return.

"I'll keep working away as hard as I can here for as long as it takes," he mused. "I'm happy with my lot. It's a very nice position to be in."

Whether he stays or leaves his house upon the hill, his life will still change this summer.

He already has two sons from a previous relationship; in June, his wife is expecting a baby.

"Old?" he smiled. "That will make me feel young again."

Belfast Telegraph


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