Wednesday 7 December 2016

Leinster's dynamic young hooker reveals how one conversation with Joe Schmidt changed his career

From loose-head to hooker, it hasn't always been a smooth journey for Leinster's Tracy

Published 23/10/2016 | 02:30

James Tracy changed tack in his career after receiving advice from Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
James Tracy changed tack in his career after receiving advice from Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

James Tracy's cv has a great big hole in it, the kind of gap he would have to explain if he was in a suit and tie, sitting down for a job interview. So in between applying for this job and your last appointment there was a year out - eh, what happened there then?

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In rugby this could be explained easily enough. He's a front-row forward, so maybe a shoulder reconstruction. Or an ACL. But no, it was all about a mental, rather than physical, setback.

"Just not being picked," he says of 2014/15, when he didn't get a sniff of the senior side after two years with his toe in the water. "It just happens with some coaches. You're out of favour. Matt O'Connor liked the other guys. He felt they fitted his system better, so I just didn't get selected.

"That's just the game. Sometimes your form goes, sometimes you just don't fit into a coach's system. I found that out the hard way. No matter how hard you try, you're just not what they're looking for. You've just got to take it on the chin."

Since then things have got progressively better for Tracy. Leo Cullen evidently thought differently to O'Connor, to the point where the coach has put him higher up the pecking order than Bryan Byrne. Factor in the ongoing injury saga that is the career of the once ultra-consistent Richard Strauss, and the world has changed shape.

This afternoon in Altrad Stadium in Montpellier, Tracy will be the starting hooker. If this is a unique development in his career, then it's all the better when you consider he only shifted over from loose-head three seasons ago. As Joe Schmidt was on his way out the door from Leinster to Ireland, he sat Tracy down and suggested the player reinvent himself.

"He brought me in for a chat," Tracy recalls. "He said, 'Listen, do you have any aspirations to play international rugby?'. I said of course I did, and he was like, 'Well, if I'm being honest, I don't think that your frame is big enough to play international, and you won't be able to carry the weight that you need' - which was fair enough. He said, 'I think if you gave hooker a go, it could be something that could turn out well for you'. That was it. That day, really, I started picking up a ball and throwing it, and it went from there."

Not smoothly, it didn't. Unlike darts or snooker, or any activity that requires highly detailed accuracy under intense pressure, lineout throwing is complicated by a range of factors. Getting your heart rate down is one; coping with the physical obstacles thrown in your way is another; and then having to pick out a spot in mid air - mostly with zero cues as landmarks - makes it high-stakes stuff.

Tracy enlisted the help of friend and former Leinster hooker Aaron Dundon - they were both coaching in Newbridge College where Tracy learned his rugby - to get a handle on the basics, and he's still not slow to drag in teammates to provide targets for him.

"As with anything new, it's just practice, practice, practice. When it's just you and the ball, no other variables, it's just up to you. I kind of sat down with myself and said, 'Listen, if I really want to take this seriously, I've just got to put in the hours and see where it takes me'.

"I come in here most days. There's a hoop to throw into. I drag people in all the time - Josh (van der Flier), Dan Leavy and a few others are always helping me out. At home I have a little point I can hit as well, but I try and come in here most days."

The transition was painful - and exacerbated by the knowledge that Matt O'Connor didn't have much faith in it working out.

"It was scary," he says. "For a good while I thought I'd made a massive mistake - as I said, it's been a good few years where I haven't really gotten that many caps. Selection went against me over a couple of years and I wondered should I have stayed with it (prop).

"But I'm kind of on the other side of that now, thankfully, and getting a bit more game-time, so it's a gamble that has not necessarily paid off, because I'm not where I want to be. But it's starting to show a bit more reward."

Today in Montpellier is where Tracy wants to be. Unusually the venue that stands out for him in his five seasons with Leinster is not the RDS, or some flashier spot - rather it's Sardis Road, in South Wales. Pontypridd's home patch was a recognisable venue when Neil Jenkins was their golden boot, but it's well off the beaten track these days. Clearly the volume hadn't gone down though when Tracy was there with the A team in 2014.

"I'd say there was probably two or three thousand there, but it felt like about 30,000," he says. "Just like proper football fans, where everyone from the town went into this cauldron of a pitch and it was the loudest thing you've ever heard. Football chants as well. We won it on the last play and they were throwing bottles on the pitch. Just madness. You've just got to respect the passion. Anything that happened, the roar was just raw.

"You hear about those kind of things, but to actually experience it? It's amazing to hear how powerful a few thousand can be - you could be in a massive, full stadium and 90 per cent of the people there are not as hardcore or mad - well, not as mad as these people anyway. The sound has stayed in my head ever since."

We'll see what he makes of Montpellier this afternoon. With his unscheduled gap year behind him, Tracy is looking at staying on this course for as long as he can.

Montpellier: J Michel; M O'Connor, V Martin, A Dumoulin, N Nadolo; F Steyn, N White; Y Watremez, S Mamukashvili, Jannie du Plessis, Jacques du Plessis, P Willemse, F Ouedraogo, P Spies, A Qera (capt). Replacements: R Ruffenach, M Nariashvili, D Kubriashvili, N van Rensburg, W Liebenberg, T O'Leary, B Botica, J Mogg
Leinster: R Kearney; Z Kirchner, R Henshaw, G Ringrose, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, M Ross, D Toner, M McCarthy, S Obrien, J Heaslip, J van der Flier. Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Bent, M Kearney, J Murphy, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery
Referee: L Pearce (England)
Montpellier v Leinster
Sky Sports 2, 12.30

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