From Ulster to Brive: Rory Scholes on getting used to life in France
As Ulster’s charter plane headed for central France, they may well have passed a former one of their number heading in the opposite direction.
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Around the same time as Dan McFarland’s men are finishing their Champions Cup clash with Clermont, Belfast-born winger Rory Scholes will be warming up for Les Jaunards’ fierce local rivals Brive as they get ready to take on Bristol Bears at Ashton Gate in the Challenge Cup.
A Schools’ Cup winner from the same Campbell College team as Irish international Chris Farrell, a product of the Ulster Academy, and prolific for the Irish under-20s, Scholes was well thought of as he rose through the ranks at Kingspan Stadium, culminating in a breakthrough campaign in 2015/16 under Les Kiss.
He would play in five of the team’s six European games that season, taking on the mighty Toulouse twice and indeed scoring a try when Ulster last tasted victory on French soil against Oyonnax some four years ago.
With All Black Charles Piutau then due to join a back-three corps that already included Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Louis Ludik, an opportunity to repeat such feats moving forward seemed a tall order and, hungry to keep improving, he would move to Edinburgh at the end of that campaign.
It was the same desire for minutes that saw him return to Ireland with Connacht in 2017, although surgery on his appendix would halt any hope of an extended run and, when former Ulster, Ireland and Lions lock Jeremy Davidson sounded him out over a switch to then Pro D2 side Brive a little over a year ago, he jumped at the unlikely opportunity.
“I was at a stage where I was just coming back from injury at Connacht and needed to play games,” he says. “This was a great opportunity for me to do that. I have really enjoyed it since I have been over here, life in France is great. The rugby and the lifestyle, it is all completely different and it’s been a great experience so far. Brive itself is very small town with about 48,000 people. It really is your quintessential beautiful French town with great shops and food and they really love their rugby.”
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Even for someone who showed a willingness to up sticks and leave home at a young age, there have been aspects of his new life that take some getting used to.
Mistakes like forgetting that quite literally everything is shut on a Sunday when you’ve an empty fridge is likely the kind of error you only make once, while there has been a real on-field adjustment too, especially with Brive having won promotion to the Top 14 at the end of last season.
“Obviously it’s a massive step up,” says the 26-year-old who is also studying business management at the Toulouse Business School. “The calibre of players and teams every week is incredible with no let up.
“The rugby is much different to what I have been used before. Obviously there is promotion and relegation which means there can be a lot of pressure and importance placed on certain matches. That can alter the way you play but also bring out some fantastic atmospheres which is something I have really enjoyed.
“We feel like we have done quite well so far this season, like we can compete with any team at home where we have picked up some big scalps and that we are building away from home and starting to pick up points in the last few games. Hopefully we can keep it up and finish the season well.”
Starting on the wing against Bristol means there’ll be no chance to catch up with his former team-mates this weekend- while the elongated Top 14 season will also see him miss good pal John Andrew’s stag do - but there is no shortage of familiar faces in his everyday life. A direct flight from London during the summer months enabled a steady flow of family and friends to visit, while he and Davidson are not the only Ulstermen on the books at the Stade Amédée-Domenech.
Stuart Olding was the club’s Player of the Year during their promotion season with S&C coach Tristan Sharpe hailing from these parts too.
And just like Ulster, they’ve already beaten Clermont once this season with a trip to the Marcel Michelin ahead. A touch over 100 miles separate the two sides of the often tempestuous Massif Central derby with Brive claiming bragging rights when they met back in September.
“It’s a massive, massive derby,” Scholes says. “It’s the first fixture all the players and fans look for at the start of the season and the one with the most anticipation. It’s right up there with the derbies back home, if not bigger, to be honest.
“We had Clermont early on in the season at home and played a great game to get the win.
“The stadium was packed and absolutely bouncing, a great day. I’m looking forward to the away fixture to see if we can do something special.”
Not far from where he now calls home, his former team-mates will be hoping for the very same.
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