Tuesday 6 December 2016

Making up for lost time after switch to hooker saves career

Offaly man grateful for chance out west as he repays faith with stunning breakthrough season

Daragh Small

Published 01/05/2015 | 02:30

Shane Delahunt
Shane Delahunt

The Connacht academy has become one of the most envied in the land in recent years. The likes of Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion have gone on to win full Irish caps, while other stars are emerging from the shadows with one common thread.

  • Go To

Academy manager and Ireland U-20 coach Nigel Carolan is constantly name-checked as new recruits and former academy stars explain their paths through the system.

One of the latest in an increasing line is hooker Shane Delahunt, and he said if it wasn't for the punt Carolan took on him at the initial stage he doesn't know where he would be today.

The 21-year-old Offaly native has played nine times in a hugely encouraging first season at the Sportsground and he has loved every minute of it.

"I came down here initially on a bit of a whim but it's been great. I was absolutely delighted when I signed my academy contract," he says.

"Last year, I was worried about where the next step was going to take me - now I'm playing rugby in the Pro12. It's been an unbelievable year and I'm really happy. If someone had offered me the position I'm in now I would have bitten their arm off."

Growing up on the outskirts of Birr, a hurling stronghold in a hurling-mad county, Delahunt was involved in GAA up until U-14. He was full-forward for the local club and also played at county level as he followed in his father Billy's footsteps.

But Shane always had rugby as his first love and he was a natural born leader, something he would turn to when he attended secondary school at Kilkenny College.

"It was a great place to go. In there I had Tony Duncan, he was first and second year coach and I learnt a lot from him," he recalls.

"Then I had Philly Ryan and then Jeff Carter as senior coach. I learnt so much from him. I owe a lot of credit to him, rugby-wise and life wise and everything.

"We did well when I was there, especially in senior year. I captained us the whole way up. There was a great bunch of lads there. You get a lot of good friends out of it and I still have a lot of good friends from there today."

Robin Copeland had also starred for the Kilkenny nursery years before Delahunt got to the senior side, and current teammate Craig Ronaldson was someone that the Offaly man looked upped to when he was in school.

Stars

"Craig left when I was in second year but he was one of the stars for Kilkenny College when he was still there," Delahunt says.

"When he was in fifth year they got to the semi-final and they were the ones we really looked up to, a lot of them ended up playing AIL and senior rugby. . . he would have been another influence for me."

Peter Lydon and Foster Horan were also star pupils at Kilkenny College and Delahunt looked to be heading in the right direction when he went on to captain the Leinster U-19s.

He also won international honours at the time but he lacked the size to continue to progress as a prop, and when he was given the advice to change to hooker his career stalled.

"I was with Leinster for a few years and I was captain of the Leinster U-19s and I was on Leinster schools and Irish schools teams and after that the Irish 19s," he says.

"But then I converted to hooker that summer of the U-20s. They told me I was a bit small for prop so I had no real other choice and Leinster were full of other props at loosehead and tighthead so there wasn't really an opening there.

"I struggled a bit and I was a replacement on the Leinster U-20s afterwards. I was in that sub-academy for two years and I didn't get an academy spot."

"I don't know was it frustrating, I was a bit light. I was probably better around the field than most props, so hooker probably looked like the best position for me."

After being let go by Leinster, Delahunt still harboured dreams of becoming a professional player - he was lining out for the Lansdowne U-20s and he got in contact with Nigel Carolan at Connacht.

"When I left Leinster, I still wanted to play on much further than that and I rang Nigel for an opportunity and he was man enough to take it on where other places wouldn't," he says.

"He gave me an opportunity and I came down in the summer on a three-month trial and he gave me a contract then after that.

"Nigel is always willing to take a chance on you and if you work hard for him, it will pay off for you and pay off for him as well. He is a top-class mentor and probably the best I've had."

After two appearances as a replacement in the Pro12 Delahunt signed the academy contract he craved and then made his first start away to Treviso.

Now he's learning from one of the best in the business with Kiwi Tom McCartney locking down the regular No 2 spot.

And Delahunt is relishing his battle with Dave Heffernan as Sean Henry and Jason Harris-Wright recover from injury.

"We have Tom McCartney there. He's very good, even just sitting back and watching Tom, you learn a lot. He is very helpful as well, even if you ask him questions," he says.

"There's Dave Heff and Jason Harris Wright, Sean Henry, they're all great."

Irish Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport