The beast from the east
After disappointing spell at Leinster, promising prop Hagan finds spiritual home west of Shannon
JAMIE HAGAN walks in and the first thing that strikes you is his size.
Six foot three and a well-distributed 19-and-a-half stone, the Connacht prop is not quite in the Tony Buckley bracket, but he's not far off. As well as the more predictable moniker of 'Hago', his team-mates call him 'The Beast From The East,' but not, as you would assume, because he hails from Leinster.
"No, they think I look like a Georgian wrestler," explains the 23-year-old. "I dunno, maybe I do, with the beard and everything."
The second thing that strikes you is his attitude. The phrase 'down to earth' has become something of a descriptive cliché in sport, but, in Hagan's case, it is particularly applicable. He grew up on a farm -- livestock and sheep -- in Balbriggan, north county Dublin where Hagan still helps out when he gets home, and land featured in his education also.
Hagan was schooled in Gormanston College just over the Meath-Dublin border and Gaelic football was his first sporting passion for his school and local Dublin club O'Dwyers.
"Yeah, a Dub playing GAA in a Meath college, I got a hard time of it," he recalls. "But, I always maintain that I never abandoned Dublin football because, although the school was in Meath, the pitches were the other side of the Boyne, in Dublin."
Rugby was not a factor until his mid-teens, when friends brought him out to Balbriggan RFC and Hagan played out-half, centre and second-row before settling at prop. Australian Dale McCauley was in the coaching set-up at Leinster Junior club and liked what he saw.
"He was a prop himself and had played grade one rugby in Australia. Dale really took me under his wing. He got me doing extra fitness sessions and gym programmes and really prepared me for the step up."
The step up went from North East Leinster, to Leinster and Ireland Youths up to the Ireland U-20s, where Hagan was part of the squad under Eric Elwood that claimed the Grand Slam in 2007.
Colin McEntee was looking after the Leinster Academy and got Hagan down to Greystones where the rigours of regular All-Ireland League rugby continued his progress. However, Hagan's non-traditional background coloured his immediate post-school experiences.
"I went to UCD and studied science and played for the U-20s, but I never really fitted in, I didn't like it and dropped out around Christmas time. I think my background was a factor, there was still a lot of that schools stuff going on, they are a different breed, it could be a bit cliquey.
"The travelling from Balbriggan got to me as well, 6.0am trains, lectures, training and getting home late at night. I lost an awful lot of weight, went down to less than 15 stone and I didn't get selected for the Irish U-19s. I was all over the shop.
"I went back there later and enjoyed it more, but that first year wasn't for me, I chucked it in and started working in a pub in Balbriggan and on the farm instead. Dave Fagan in the Leinster Academy was a big help at that time, he built me back up.
Hagan also formed a strong bond with one of rugby's foremost scrummaging experts -- former Ireland coach Roly Meates.
"Roly is brilliant. I used to go to his house privately and we'd look at videos and he'd advise me on technique, foot positions and all the aspects of the scrum. He's a real scrum guru."
"But Leinster is a big operation. I was only a young fellah, and they had plenty of props around, Stan Wright, Ronnie McCormack, Stephen Knoop and Ollie Le Roux were all about and it was hard to get a look in. I got 10 minutes off the bench at the end of a Magners League game against the Dragons -- that was it -- it was frustrating. To be honest, it's a bit intimidating there. Lots of big names around the place and it's easy to go into your shell."
If Hagan was not a natural fit at Leinster, when Connacht came calling, everything clicked into place and the Balbriggan man's no-frills attitude had found a natural home.
"Rugby is my trade, that's how I feel. A lot of my friends would be tradesmen, carpenters and plumbers and stuff like that, and Connacht gave me a chance to work at my trade that I wasn't getting in Leinster.
"People said, 'Leinster is where you're from, that's where you should play', but when the phone call came from Connacht, I just saw it as a great opportunity. Brads (former coach Michael Bradley) rang me and he was amazing, straight up, no bulls**t and really easy to talk to, it was nearly like talking to your dad.
"My parents go to every match I play and their opinion would be very important to me. My mam and dad said, 'whatever makes you happy', and they've been really supportive. My girlfriend, too, because it hasn't been easy for her, she's in college in Dublin so there's a lot of travelling back and forth.
"I immediately gained confidence. Dan McFarland and Brads and Eric, they were working with me and bringing me along and because I was a bit older, I didn't have the same fear factor I had at Leinster. I know we're on one-year contracts, but, if things are worked out for our future, Connacht is where I want to play.
"It's more down to earth in Connacht and there's a great spirit. I'm sharing a house with Andrew Browne, Aidan Wynne and Shane Monahan, although it's nothing as fancy as where Cronin, Carr and Keatley are living in Oranmore.
"It's unreal, we call it the Playboy Mansion, six bedrooms compared to our four. Fionn even has a jacuzzi in his en-suite bathroom ... ah, they're away with the fairies, but sound lads really."
As well as the obvious camaraderie within the Connacht ranks, there have been more tangible improvements, begun under Bradley and carried on by Elwood. The coaching additions of Brian Melrose (backs) and Mike Forshaw (defence) have added a layer of expertise and freshness, while top-of-the-range gym, training and analysis technologies have all served to raise the bar.
The evidence has been a superb start to the season, 10 points from three outings propelling Connacht to the dizzying heights of fourth in the Magners League table. And behind it all has been the driving force of Elwood's parochial passion.
"Eric is incredible. You can see how much it means to him. When we won in Glasgow, it was our first away win for two years and Eric was nearly crying when he spoke afterwards, it gets you going.
"The standards have definitely gone up. Every aspect of your performance is tracked, it shows you where you missed a tackle or made a mistake. It focuses the mind and the next time you go out, you're determined to improve."
On Saturday, Ulster bring their 100pc record to the Sportsground, when Hagan hopes there will be a full house to cheer on the home side, and, as much as it is an opportunity for Connacht to make a collective statement, it is also a chance for individuals to catch the attention of the national selectors.
It is early days for Hagan -- 23 is adolescence in propping terms -- but his progress is encouraging in what has been a problem position for Ireland. His scrummaging has been destructive this season, with his loose game matching up. Last weekend, Hagan went up against Glasgow's highly rated loose-head Jon Welsh, and the Balbriggan man owned him.
A big performance against an Ulster front-row that may include Grand Slam-winning prop Tom Court would shout out to Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal.
However, Hagan doesn't look at it that way and chooses an unlikely role model to explain why.
"Maria Sharapova is a good example of the way I look at it. Brian Melrose always talks about 'living in the moment' and when you watch Sharapova playing tennis, she goes to the back of the court after every point, winning or losing, shakes her hand to put it out of her head and starts again.
"That's my approach. I'm not thinking about Ireland or anything like that. I'm thinking no further than Ulster and even then, I'm thinking about the next scrum, the next play. I still have a lot to learn.
"Live in moment, that's the only way."