Zero Rucks Given: Jerry Flannery on why more young players should follow James Hart’s lead
Fla wants more Irish players to try their luck abroad, while he also talks about Richardt Strauss’s heart condition and the possible silver lining for Leinster.
The surprise defeat at home of Johnny Sexton’s Racing Metro by FC Grenoble threw the spotlight on the visitor’s young Irish outhalf James Hart and more specifically, the journey he undertook to get to that point in professional rugby.
Hart did not come through the usual route for an Irish player to get into professional rugby. The usual path for young players in Irish rugby generally consists of schools rugby, then being invited to join a provincial academy with the next step being a development contract before being offered a full time professional contract.
It’s a path that has been working well for Irish rugby but I can’t help but wonder at how many good young lads are missing out on a chance to earn a living from the game by only focusing on this pathway. James Hart wasn't chosen for the Leinster academy upon leaving school so his development as a player lay with playing for the Clontarf U-20’s and first team. At this stage Hart’s story sounds like one of the many lads that leave school every year and feel that they've missed the boat when it comes to professional rugby. Luckily for Hart, Bernard Jackman, whom Hart knew from his time at Clontarf, had taken at role on the coaching staff with FC Grenoble and extended an invitation to him to come over on trial at the club. Fast forward 12 months, add a lot of hard graft and Hart is the star man in the defeat of Racing Metro.
Bernard Jackman, who brought James Hart to Grenoble
I know this story has been covered already in other media but I wanted to give the background for those that hadn't seen it as I think Hart’s story is one that a lot of young Irish lads could learn from. Over the course of my career I've played with and against so many quality players in the AIL that I just think at times far too many talented players in this country give up on the dream of professional rugby too soon. For me the main thing for young players is to work on getting better every single day and appreciate that there are other paths to a professional contract outside of the conventional ones in Ireland.
The couple of years after leaving school are so crucial for ambitious young lads in trying to make it into the pro ranks in Irish rugby. However, it’s important to remember that these two years are no different to any other years in a player’s career when it comes to injuries. This doesn’t even have to mean six-month lay-offs with shoulder reconstructions or knee reconstructions. An ambitious young player need only suffer a few relatively minor, badly timed, injuries prior to key games and this could be the difference in being selected for an academy place or not. In this regard players should not give up hope and should instead look to keep working on their game relentlessly whilst exploring the option of going abroad on trial at other clubs.
For some fellas they don’t have the attitude ‘I want to be a professional rugby player’. Instead they have the attitude that ‘I will bleed red for the humble honest people of Munster” or ‘I want to electrify the affluent crowd at The Royal Dublin Society on a night of sheer blue magic rugby for the mighty boys in blue of Leinster ’ but… if I can’t make it with my home team then I’m not going to play at all. Whilst some people might consider this admirable the bigger picture is that not everyone matures as a player at the same rates so for some players going away to get experience at a lower level could be the ticket for them to develop to eventually go back and play for their home province.
Consider the example of a young player from Dublin as a member of the Leinster academy and living at home. Of course it’s a professional sport so you’ll have to make sacrifices but you still maintain all the comforts of home. But then as soon as Leinster say that it’s not going to happen for you here, some lads will feel that they’ve failed in professional rugby and just pack it in.
What they need to realise is that Leinster have probably been the best team in Europe these last few years so if they can’t make it there it is the equivalent of not making it in Manchester United. In football, the norm is for lads to head off and try and make it somewhere else.
Another bonus, away from the one the players themselves will get, is the expanded pool of talent for Ireland that Joe Schmidt can choose from. And it also means that more young Irish players will feel that there are places for them in the world of professional rugby. A lot of people still think there are only four teams they can play for and for most the attitude is there is only one team they can play for.
If you look at football, which I know is a lot more global, but a kid in London will take a chance and move away if it means playing the game, same as kids from every Irish town and city do if they go to England to play football too.
The fastest hooker in the west; Fla playing for Connacht in 2002
It’s all about getting your foot in the door. For me, I went to Connacht to get my chance. Eoin Reddan went to Wasps, Mike Ross to Harlequins, Tom Hayes to Plymouth, Geordan Murphy, Johnny Murphy and most recently Niall Morris to Leicester. That’s where the sport needs to go. One of the strengths of the Irish provinces is the players, because they have started out as fans and feel so much a part of the club, they have that responsibility to deliver for their friends and family built into them. But at the same time, I think Irish rugby would benefit if more lads took the long-term view and said ‘if there is no place for me right here, I’ll go and get some game time somewhere else and keep improving’.
You can come back then, when you are ready, when you have some experience and if you are good enough, you will get back in. I was in the last year of my contract on the national academy when I looked at my options. I considered a year of club rugby with Shannon whilst trying to break into the Munster squad. If that year had gone well Munster would probably have given me a development contract as I was a local lad with no other real offers so I took a chance to go to Galway.
I knew I would have a better chance of breaking into the Connacht side and as long as I went well they would have to offer me a full-time contract. I maintained my work ethic training wise and I was lucky in that I remained injury free and it worked out for me. I was able to come back to Munster with some good experience and as a much better player.
I’ve seen it here at Arsenal where they send lads away on trial, just to see how do they cope outside the bubble of being at a club like Arsenal. They want to see lads roll up their sleeves and make it work.
Hart had the same situation when he was dropped into the pretty basic digs that a French rugby apprentice lives in. He wasn’t at home, with all the relative comforts (friends, family etc) so he put his head down and made a real go of it as a player. That shows a strong mind and a lot of ambition.
I’m not calling for an exodus but I’d like to see more young lads even consider the option of learning their trade away from Ireland, before coming back as even better players. What most lads need is rugby under their belt so if it doesn’t happen straight away here, go and find it.
The news about Richardt Strauss is tough to hear. I remember when Simon Best was hit with a similar diagnosis during the 2007 World Cup. Bestie was a real popular guy, just like his brother Rory, and it is a shock when a fellow player gets diagnosed with something serious like that.
Fortunately when you look at what happened to Fabrice Muamba, you think ‘thank Christ it was spotted before it happened in a game’. It is great to hear that it seems Richardt’s procedure is a relatively straight forward one, that it is expected he’ll get through it and he should be back playing hopefully before the end of the season. The few times I met him he seems like a really good fella and an excellent player and while it is one thing breaking a leg or something, a heart condition is a whole other, much more serious, matter.
As for Leinster, the absence of Strauss is hard to take but it is a chance for Sean Cronin to step in and take his game to another level. I first remember seeing him at the Munster academy and while you pretend not to be looking at your rivals I remember thinking ‘Shit, this young fella is good’. He’s dynamic and it’s a huge bonus to have a player capable of doing the things he can do on the pitch in the hooker’s jersey. I think Sean’s game has plateaued a bit as a result of never really nailing down the first-choice position at either Leinster or Ireland and that can be very tough, particularly as a hooker.
Hopefully now Sean will get a sustained run as first choice, help solidify his set piece work and showcase his outstanding loose play. He has the physical attributes to be one of the best, it should be an exciting season for him now but it is unfortunate the way it came about. Sean is also a tough Limerick man.