An overnight success after all these years
Scrumhalf Cillian Willis has finally landed on his feet at Sale after a career beset by injuries and frustration, as he tells Brendan Fanning
It'll be six years in a fortnight since Leinster, in a previous incarnation, opened their Heineken Cup account at home against Gloucester. A bumper crowd of 22,500 turned out, less than half the attendance for the Pro12 game with Munster last weekend. They were different times.
Harry Vermaas and Owen Finegan were on a less-than-stellar bench. Only three of the 22 are still around: Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll and, hopefully before too long, Luke Fitzgerald.
With Chris Whitaker and Guy Easterby injured, a 21-year-old greenhorn by the name of Cillian Willis came from the back of the field to start at scrumhalf. Two things stood out about him: his service was fast and accurate, and despite looking like he weighed 11 stones ringing wet, he gave nothing to the combative and experienced Peter Richards. We went home thinking this lad Willis might be on the verge of something good.
And indeed he is. It's just that it might have been the longest, darkest night in the history of overnight successes. Willis is now 27, has broken his eye socket three times, had major surgery on his shoulder, and broken his leg. In fact, there were a clatter of other fractures as well. At one point in the journey he had actually decided to pack it in. Instead he now has a handle on the game, and his place in it, one that has opened the door to the most enjoyable rugby of a much-travelled career. He starts today for Sale against Cardiff in the Heineken Cup.
Willis's journey got under way in earnest against Gloucester that day in Lansdowne Road. Soon after, injury arrived. By the time he was recovering from a shoulder operation it was the next season and another scrumhalf, Chris Keane, had filled his space. Ulster offered a fresh start. Matt Williams was beaming and positive and for a season in Belfast it was all good. Then Mattie moved on.
"There was nearly a clean sweep on the coaching staff and as can always happen with a change in structure you might not be in favour with the new crowd," he says. "It was frustrating enough. I had a year to run on my contract with Ulster but the chance came to leave early and go to Connacht, just to give myself a chance of playing some rugby. It just wasn't happening.
"I had no interest in living in Belfast -- for the purpose of playing rugby -- and going out and playing (AIL Division 2) with Malone which wasn't the sort of level I wanted to play at. It wasn't what I went up there to do, to be honest. At that point I'd had a taste of provincial rugby and I had ambitions of progressing and going on maybe to play for Ireland, and instead I was going in the opposite direction."
Technically, Galway wasn't a move up the ladder, but a good move nonetheless. On the game front he got four starts in the Magners League and just one in the Amlin Challenge Cup. However, 14 runs off the bench between both competitions left him clear enough on the pecking order in the Sportsground, where Frank Murphy was always ahead of him.
"The plan was to give it a bash for a year and see how I got on and see am I up to it really? I didn't have too much interest in sort of farting around the fringes and getting by here and there every now and again. Either I wanted to be playing or I'd had enough really. I probably put a lot of pressure on myself as well.
"I played a bit -- probably didn't play particularly well when I played but at the same time thoroughly enjoyed my time there. I thought Galway was a cracking spot and
there was a brilliant group there as well. Good friends, and I really enjoyed my time away from rugby too. It was a world of difference from the year before. At the same time I made the decision that it was all coming to an end -- you want to be playing and you want to be enjoying it. And I wasn't."
Willis had walked into UCD on a rugby scholarship, and by his second year he was wedded to the idea of going all the way. The moves north and west didn't make that any more realistic. Arriving back to Leinster though caused him to step back and reassess.
With Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan on World Cup duty in autumn 2011, Joe Schmidt needed short-term cover at nine, and offered Willis a four-month deal. The Leinster he found on his second coming was transformed on every level from the one he had left three years earlier. And in Schmidt they had landed the ideal man to take them to the next level. "He's a phenomenal coach in terms of his rugby stuff and his management skills," Willis says. "It's such a happy place to be inside there and I think a massive part for any rugby coach or director of a rugby club is to be able to cultivate an atmosphere where people can thrive. That's what he's managed to do. Everyone, from the bag man right up to the CEO in that organisation, seems to feel like they're contributing to it -- and they are. Everyone feels involved."
When the boys came back from the World Cup, Willis had won a player of the month award and was re-energised for rugby. As Connacht was wrapping up he had been ready to join the family business, running a nursing home. Now he wanted to hang in a bit longer. Schmidt sorted him with a spot at Sale. Initially, it was short term for the injured Dwayne Peel, but since then he has signed on for two more seasons.
He played 16 games for Sale last term, which, along with six for Leinster before he moved over, made it the busiest season in his seven-year career. "I really enjoyed my rugby last season probably because I was purely going out to enjoy it and relax," he says. "It's like going out and throwing a ball around with your mates. Most rugby players are competitive by nature, so I don't need to get massively worked up before I go out. I always thought when I was younger that experience counts for absolutely nothing but I've no doubt it does count for something now. It really does. As I see it I have 19 months left in the game and I intend to enjoy them and not beat myself up if I'm not in one week. If I'm in the next week I'll enjoy it and I'll enjoy training and enjoy living in Manchester.
"My contract will take me to 29 and I'd be extremely surprised if I end up playing after that. But I'm going to enjoy it. I'm set up nicely, have a nice little house here and my fiancée moved over in the summer. I wouldn't have stayed if she wasn't coming over."
Sale are struggling but he reckons they'll pull through. When Cillian Willis gets to the ripe old age of 29, and, so to speak, goes into the nursing home, he'll reflect on a career that moved him around a lot, exposing him to different people and enriching experiences, but never moved him upwards, which was where he really wanted to go.
"I look back to six or seven years ago and would have hoped to do better," he says. "And I would have always believed that I would do a lot better than I have done. Probably I've been a bit unlucky with injuries, and I had a raft of them at one point, but that's the way it goes."
That he is still playing top-quality rugby tells you something about his character. And thankfully he is enjoying every step on the last couple of laps.