Out of the shad­ows and into the light

Seán Cronin’s jour­ney to Bil­bao has been a story of re­demp­tion fol­low­ing a de­mor­al­is­ing set­back

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

BACK in the day Ire­land team man­ager Pa Whe­lan used to have a ‘ready to go’ line when­ever he was asked about a player who had been left out of the team. “We know what he can do,” he would say about the poor un­for­tu­nate who didn’t make the cut. The sub­text was that Whe­lan and Co knew bet­ter what the player in ques­tion could not do.

That line pre­sented it­self again last Novem­ber when Si­mon Easterby di­alled up his Pa im­pres­sion on the sub­ject of Seán Cronin. Joe Sch­midt had just an­nounced his squad for the three-game Guin­ness Se­ries, and the hooker was sur­plus to re­quire­ments.

“We know what he is about, know how good he can be, know his strengths,” Easterby said at the time. “We felt at this stage it was a good time to in­vest some time in oth­ers. That might change in the Six Na­tions.”

The last line seemed to leave the door more than ajar. But it wasn’t as if Cronin had been told a lit­tle nudge would open it .

“No,” he says. “I was told, ‘Look, other guys are play­ing well’, which they were at the time. I wasn’t play­ing well. They never pat­ted me on the back and said, ‘We’ll make sure you get back in’. I ob­vi­ously knew that I had to go away and work hard. I like to think that’s the kind of per­son I am. That gave me the kick that I needed to ad­dress the stuff I needed to ad­dress and get right.”

So he got the PRO14 games he needed with Le­in­ster to get back on track, build some mo­men­tum, and then get stuck in again to the Cham­pi­ons Cup. Cur­rently that head of steam has Cronin go­ing to Bil­bao next week­end in the form of his life, which is a good place to be for a man who first turned heads in an AIL fi­nal in 2006.

He read­ily ac­cepts that the way he started the sea­son was well re­moved from ideal: he was car­ry­ing ex­tra weight and strug­gling to come back from in­jury. In truth, for Seán Cronin the build-up to the an­nounce­ment of the Novem­ber squad was more about res­ig­na­tion to what was com­ing than sur­prise that it came.

“I watch a lot of rugby,” he says. “I’m no fool. I saw Rob Her­ring had been play­ing re­ally well, I think Rory (Best) was out in­jured at the time and he was get­ting a lot of game-time and play­ing re­ally, re­ally well. James Tracy was play­ing bet­ter than me here (at Le­in­ster) so some­times you’ve just got to ac­knowl­edge it. If your form has dipped you’ve got to ad­dress it, and maybe other guys de­served a chance at the time. I’ll be 32 on Sun­day and that kind of stuff comes with age. As you progress through your ca­reer, you learn from stuff.”

One of the first lessons he learned was the num­bers game. As a young star on Shan­non’s three-in-a-row AIL side of 2004-2006, a place in the Mun­ster set-up was the log­i­cal com­pan­ion to a de­vel­op­ing ca­reer. It was a crowded house though. And af­ter three sea­sons his tally of pro games num­bered two.

“I don’t want to give you an an­swer that’s easy to say, but it’s such a per­sonal de­ci­sion. For me, yeah, it was tough to leave Mun­ster but I was fourth- or fifth-choice hooker and De­clan Kid­ney was bring­ing in guys in front of me even when there were in­juries, which kind of an­noyed me a small bit.

“I thought I was good enough to be at least third-choice there, and if there were guys away on in­ter­na­tional duty to be on the bench, but it never came to pass so. It was tough for me to leave. You know I ad­mire guys who are one-club men — it’s a good thing to have in your ca­reer to look back on. But I also ad­mire guys who have the balls to move and are will­ing to be, not am­bi­tious, but if they can see it’s a bet­ter ca­reer path.”

Con­nacht gave him what he needed: the chance to play. When he had proved him­self good enough to move east then that’s what he did. Al­ready part of the Ire­land set-up by then, he ar­rived in Le­in­ster look­ing first to learn from Richardt Strauss — about to get a bit of green him­self — and then over­take him.

That ma­noeu­vre was com­plete by 2013/’14 by which time he had started 18 of his 23 games that sea­son for Le­in­ster. The Ire­land bit has never quite caught on though. Cronin’s haul of 61 caps is 60 more than most in the game. But if you of­fered him the chance to move those num­bers around the page a bit then surely he would want more than nine to have been starts.

Whether it was Jerry Flan­nery or Rory Best, the role for Cronin has mostly been as glam­orous as­sis­tant. Phys­i­cally big­ger than ei­ther man, and with enough gas to burn off pretty much any ri­val at any stage in his ca­reer, Cronin has had his is­sues with darts. And it’s hard to find those who would de­scribe him as a scrum­mag­ing hooker. In which case he has been pack­aged as the epit­ome of im­pact. With out­stand­ing props un­der his ox­ters in Le­in­ster, and sec­ond-rows who know their job, he has looked the ideal all-rounder as this sea­son wore on.

“I looked to have a level of more con­sis­tency around my play in gen­eral this sea­son, so I could bring the whole pack­age to­gether,” he says. “In terms of that, I think I’m prob­a­bly per­form­ing to the best of my ca­reer in terms of my scrum­mag­ing; my li­ne­out has been a lot bet­ter this year, maybe in the last 18 months. They’re ar­eas of my game I’ve tried to work hard at, both here and with Ire­land, to try and get bet­ter so I could play at the top, top level.”

Putting the fright­en­ers on Bundee Aki in open coun­try in the RDS in Jan­uary il­lus­trated how his progress was un­fold­ing.

“I sup­pose I took a lot of con­fi­dence from those back-to-back (Cham­pi­ons Cup) games. The whole squad took a lot of con­fi­dence from go­ing away from home and putting in a clin­i­cal per­for­mance against Ex­eter and then build­ing into the Christ­mas games. Bundee? I hadn’t seen his eyes light up like that in a while when I tried to take him on the out­side! He told me af­ter­wards: ‘Don’t ever do that to me again!’ Yeah, it was good, like I said, I felt good at the time. I felt fit. I was work­ing at 105 or 106 ki­los at the start of the year. It was great for the scrum­mag­ing but I’ve got back down to around 100/101 and I think even the work I’ve put in with the scrum­mag­ing, I feel the loss of weight hasn’t re­ally af­fected me and I’m mov­ing a lot bet­ter on the ground and it just makes a big dif­fer­ence with me.”

Two things present them­selves in Bil­bao on Sun­day. The first is Don­nacha Ryan and the prospect of him do­ing to Le­in­ster when he did to Mun­ster in the

Cham­pi­ons Cup semi-fi­nal. Rac­ing’s de­fen­sive li­ne­out is out­stand­ing, and lead­ing it is a badge of hon­our for Ryan.

“I know Don­nacha re­ally well,” Cronin says. “I played at Shan­non with him years and years ago — that’s how long we go back. All he does is trawl through video, even with Ire­land, it was video, video, video. He’s like Tom Brady in the NFL so he’ll be well-versed in what we’re do­ing so we’ll prob­a­bly have to ad­just a few things for him.”

Then there is the in­ten­sity of the oc­ca­sion it­self. In 2012 in Twick­en­ham, Cronin was com­ing off the bench for Strauss and run­ning in a try as part of Le­in­ster’s fi­nal jam­boree against Ul­ster, their third ti­tle in four sea­sons. The mag­nif­i­cent semi-fi­nal con­test against Bordeaux seems like a more use­ful pointer to Sat­ur­day in Spain.

“I’ve ac­tu­ally watched that game on YouTube a cou­ple of times,” Cronin says. “The last 10 min­utes of that Bordeaux game is a good ref­er­ence point to go to where you can see the in­ten­sity. It was huge. The cen­tre (Wes­ley) Fo­fana knocked the ball on go­ing over the line and then we had two scrums on our line. And then there was about seven or eight min­utes’ de­fend­ing, so that’s a pretty good ref­er­ence point to go to for the in­ten­sity we’re go­ing to have in Bil­bao.

“We don’t know what kind of crowd but we’re hop­ing Le­in­ster will have a huge fol­low­ing go­ing there, but it (Bordeaux) was a great at­mos­phere to play in. I think Seánie O’Brien got the turnover on the line. It was hugely sat­is­fy­ing to go over there and put in a per­for­mance like that and get to another fi­nal.”

Which is where he is again. This time as a starter. And as Pa Whe­lan might have put it: we know what he can do.

‘I knew that I had to go away and work hard. It gave me the kick I needed’

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