Understudy Cronin ready to shine as leading man
Leinster hooker appreciates his role as an impact replacement but remains hungry to prove worth in rare starting role
Published 12/11/2016 | 02:30
Seán Cronin has had to get used to being second in line for the Irish hooking jersey but he will never be content merely to be second best.
There are those on bar stools who will carp at the fact that the Munster man has played in 25 Six Nations matches but never actually started one of them.
Or that he once said that he will never be content to be just an impact player before months later saying he was becoming accepting of the fact.
He has been peremptorily culled from a Six Nations squad the week after a typically rambunctious bench effort; he has been dropped similarly during the middle of a World Cup tournament but still he soldiers selflessly on.
This week, after another stellar impact from the bench against New Zealand, three years after a premature introduction, arriving after just 15 minutes in the agonising Aviva 2013 defeat, Cronin will start just his ninth international in 59 Tests against Canada.
To say he is happy with his lot is not to be misinterpreted as a resigned shrug of indifference to a potentially perennial status as an understudy; rather, he seeks solace in what he can add to the team, not what it is felt he cannot.
After all, Joe Schmidt calls his bench "the closers" for a reason; they did, he knows well, help Ireland win a championship when the replacements piled on the points which proved the difference between the winning and losing of the 2014 Six Nations title.
"I suppose you could flip it around and say it's maybe got me into a few squads, when there's pressure and competition," says Cronin when reminded, once more, of his super-sub status. "Rory Best is there, he's the captain, he's the leader, but what I can offer off the bench has maybe got me into squads before.
"Obviously I want to get that two position, and the best way to go about that is get things right when you get that opportunity, like this weekend.
"Then when it comes to asking the coaches about, 'Why aren't I getting selected?' at least the pressure's on him. That's all I can do."
Like the dramatic understudy on the stage, the sporting reserve - particularly under Schmidt's watch - must be able to have an in-depth knowledge of the entire cast and production, not merely focusing on getting his own script down pat.
This week's preparation, even if a Tier Two challenge against relative unknowns rather than a tilt at the best rugby squad on earth, will be exactly the same as always, regardless of the jersey number on his back.
"There's not really any difference," he confirms. "If you're on the bench, you need to be ready.
"Leading into the week of the All Blacks game in Chicago, I remember three years ago when Rory went off after 15 minutes, and bang - I was literally right into the game.
"So, a lot of lessons were learned from there. You have to be prepared, to be prepared to have the number two on your back. You can be on in the blink of an eye."
And, usually, Cronin can be seen disappearing into defensive gaps just as quickly, often thriving on the openness of games as they advance deep into tiring second halves.
The trick now is to reconfirm that his impact can be immediate, rather than belated.
"I wouldn't say I need to prove a point. But it's just every player knows what Joe's looking for; that's accurate in the set-piece, breakdown, knowing your role, doing your job right, and then the big saying is, 'Making the guy outside you look better'.
"If that's animating off the ball, you might make a hole for someone else, it's that unseen work that sticks in Joe's mind.
"I've to try take my opportunity this weekend. I haven't had many starts, so it's a big opportunity for me."
Aside from the three Lions already starting today, Schmidt suggests others could put their hands up.
Cronin's Leinster and Ireland predecessor Shane Byrne won his first international cap eight years after first benching before becoming a Lions Test starter in New Zealand so the Limerick man should think big.
"I think I'm a driven person and I'd like to get better and push on for bigger and better things," he says.