'Now that you've a taste for it, you want more'
The Big Interview: Tom Daly
Published 11/11/2016 | 02:30
It's hard to pick out the broadest smile as the Leinster players disembark their CityJet flight late last Saturday evening. So many options.
There are those celebrating Ireland's win. Glued to their phones and reacting to the historic result from Chicago - the second half of which played out with the Leinster team somewhere between Parma and Dublin. There are those just happy to be home and happy in the knowledge that they've delivered a job very well done in Italy.
But then there are those still lost in the moment and reacting to what unfolded over the previous eight hours or so.
Carlow native Tom Daly is in the latter category as he scans through messages of well wishes and then congratulations from friends and family after his Leinster debut.
"It will take a while to sink in I think what I have achieved this week and this evening. All week I was just anxious to get out there and get into it but actually once I got the try was when the nerves eased off properly. I thought well even if I don't touch the ball for the rest of the game I can at least take that with me!"
With all the talk about Joey Carbery and his meteoric rise from the Academy, it is easy to forget that for most 'normal' rugby players plying their trade with the provinces, they take the scenic route. Earn their stripes, as it were.
First there is the Leinster Youths, maybe when you first get picked from club-land underage. Then through the Sub-Academy, into the Leinster Academy, get game time with your senior club in the All-Ireland League, get some game time with the Leinster 'A' team and then maybe. Maybe.
"There are no guarantees. Nobody will hand you a jersey in here. You fight for every step on that ladder. Whether that's underage or Leinster 'A' or senior," Daly says. "You get knocked back or you get moments where it doesn't go well but you also get brilliant highs and times when you have to be ready to capitalise and I suppose that was the case this week where I was ready to go when Leo gave me the heads up early enough in the week."
Daly, now 23, was handed a senior contract by Cullen this season but there were moments last season when the doubts crept in.
"I would have looked at last season with the Word Cup and so many lads away as an opportunity but I picked up a few niggles and then suddenly before you know it, another season passes you by.
"I think my dad was worse than me! He saw the lads I was living with in the house getting capped and was thinking, 'What's he doing wrong!' But all in good jest, dad and the rest of my family were huge supporters and still are and it was great to have my mum and dad over there in Parma for when I did make my debut."
He refers to the house-mates, one of whom, Josh van der Flier, was in Chicago with Ireland, while the other two, Peter Dooley and Adam Byrne, were on the pitch with him in Parma, Byrne grabbing himself a hat-trick of tries in a man of the match performance.
Their participation in a four-part mini-series for Leinster Rugby TV last year showed the bond that exists between the four but it also showed glimpses of that doubt that Daly refers to.
As he said at the time, "Obviously the aim is to play for Leinster. It happened for Josh quickly this year and Dooley is hot on his heels and me and Adam are just waiting for our chance so maybe in the next few weeks but if not, next year. So hopefully that chance will come."
He reflects on those carefully selected words but having now pulled on the jersey for the first time, he still agrees with the sentiments expressed.
"As I said, there are no guarantees and that's where we were at last season when we did that piece for Leinster TV. You just don't know how it will pan out and you do see other lads getting on and getting Leinster caps and even Ireland caps for Josh.
"So that first cap, the first touch of the ball on Saturday, my first try, being involved most importantly in a Leinster win; like that is maybe six or seven years of hard work boiling down into one moment, one chat with Leo and then one game. It's surreal still. But some lads won't even get that.
"But the moments mean nothing if you can't celebrate with those special people in your life. So it was brilliant to have my parents there."
The game itself was a comfortable - in the end - 23-point winning margin for Leinster against Zebre who were coming into the game with their full complement of Italian players at their disposal.
"We knew they would be in good form having beaten Edinburgh the week before, the Italian lads were back in and with us playing a few young lads they would go after us but I think we performed well. The conditions were pretty poor so it wasn't ideal."
Together with Daly, Hugo Keenan also made his debut off the bench; Andrew Porter made his first start while Adam Byrne and Barry Daly are inexperienced at this level too but they all played their part in keeping Leinster top of the Pro12 after eight rounds.
"The pace and the physicality were definitely a step above but when you've been training so long for this moment you don't want it to end and it was nearly disappointing to hear the final whistle go. But it was a good night all round with Adam getting three tries and a man of the match award and then the rest of the lads going well.
"We had set ourselves targets for this first blast of Guinness Pro12 and Champions Cup games and I think we can be reasonably happy with where we are at. We are top of both our pool and the Pro12 table but I think we all feel that there is more in us, more room to grow."
That growth will have to wait a while. There is a gap for two weekends to allow the autumn internationals to play out before attention will turn again to the Pro12. He's got plans to head to Madrid but he'd be just as happy to have another chat with Leo.
"We've two Welsh teams back to back, Scarlets away first and then Dragons at home, but I'd be just as happy to play them now. A few of the lads were saying the same thing. Now that you've a taste for it, you want more.
"But for all of us now we'll enjoy the few days off and then we'll come back, and go at it again."
Doubts erased. Part of the Leinster family. And nobody can take that away.