Sunday 8 December 2019

Taking his shot against the odds

With his future unclear Caolin Blade showed his worth in a European tie with Bayonne in 2014

Caolin Blade
Caolin Blade
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In rugby's version of the movie Sliding Doors, Caolin Blade would be playing rugby for Monivea instead of Connacht. There's only half an hour between the east Galway village and the Sportsground, but light years in the difference. It's likely he will end up there anyway, where currently his brother Darren is the coach, and where the same brother and their dad at one stage featured together as the halfback partnership, but that's a while away yet. Other stuff to be done first.

The key moment in transition came in 2014. Blade was well down the cast of characters at the time, plugging away in the Academy having made the unusual midstream move from outhalf/centre to scrumhalf. Next thing he knew, he was being handed a first start in the senior team. It didn't look like a golden opportunity: Connacht had won the first of their back-to-back Challenge Cup ties against Bayonne, at home, and coach Pat Lam used an industrial machine to rotate his side for the away leg. Where the first choice pairing of Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty had led the charge in the Sportsgound, Blade and Mia Nikora would be flying the flag in the south of France.

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Connacht were long odds. And their 20-year-old scrumhalf was even better value for scoring two tries and establishing himself firmly in the cohort of nines in the province. It might as easily have been confirmation that this lad, relatively new to scrumhalf, was not going to make it.

"I probably struggled for three or four years because I was that much behind the other nines skill-wise because it's such a skilled position, completely different," he says. "But there's another side to it in that I got a massive game appreciation. I learnt how to play different positions with different skills. My biggest work-on wasn't my rugby ability or my rugby understanding it was more nailing the skills of a nine and trying to get to world class. I'm still not there yet but I'm a lot better than I was.

"I learnt a huge amount from that game," he says of that day in France. "That was my first start. I'd come off the bench in a few games and I remember feeling nervous. I remember it affected my performances. I don't know why but in that game, doing the warm-up, doing my passing and my kicking, I was smiling and laughing. I just felt invincible. 'There's nothing to lose here. I'm a young scrumhalf, getting my chance here'. I don't know why, I just didn't feel pressure. I understood the game and I had the backing of Pat Lam at the time and thankfully, it was a huge game."

In truth, if he hadn't stunned everyone that night with his performance in Bayonne - it earned him the title of 'The Pig Hunter' from Lam, which was meant in praise - Blade might not have cut it at all. Given he had loaded all his eggs in the rugby basket it's as well things are now going very much according to plan.

Kieran Marmion
Kieran Marmion

Even then it wasn't as if post-Bayonne he got immediate star billing. He was given a development contract a couple of weeks later but his Pro 14 debut was still two years off. John Cooney was still on the payroll. Marmion was the undisputed leading man. Ian Porter, who had shifted south west from Ulster that year, would have been leagues ahead of Blade on the basics of passing a ball accurately off either hand, off the ground or coming down from a lineout.

And now? Porter is no longer in the pro game; Cooney is in Ulster; and Marmion is second fiddle, distinctly out of tune after an injury-disrupted season ended with him missing the cut for the World Cup. Blade, the battler, has taken full advantage. His background was a handy preparation. Monivea Rugby Club is unusual if not unique given its profile in staunch GAA caliphate.

Former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan would have fond memories of coaching there when he was teaching in Mountbellew, of the buses pulling up in the middle of nowhere, disgorging gaggles of kids, and then reappearing when the session was done. O'Sullivan became player-coach with the one adult team - who played at junior level - and played alongside Blade's father Pat and uncle Johnny.

The club, with their dressing rooms tacked on to the side of McGann's pub in the village, wouldn't have seen the light of day were it not for the drive of Pádraig McGann. It was the classic code share: when hurling was quiet Monivea's numbers were up; when the small ball was in the air the oval one was left in the fertiliser bag. You wonder if Caolin, when he got a toe in the door of the Connacht Academy, ever felt a bit of heat to deliver on behalf of such a club and its future.

"I don't think I've ever felt pressure," he says. "As I said I've always had support from people in here (Connacht) but I've had even more support from people back there. There was never pressure on me. If I didn't make it, I would have went back playing junior rugby with Monivea and I probably would have been happy. No, I never felt pressure from Monivea and delighted to be doing them proud."

As a kid he played a bit of everything but it was rugby that kept his head turned. And the idea of doing it for a crust always appealed to him. He's 25 now, an age when most players with ambition would want something chunky and material to show for their efforts. Being called into Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad last season is the high point so far.

"I wouldn't say I'm behind schedule or ahead of it," Blade says. "I think you always want to be ahead of schedule but I'm happy with what I'm doing. Obviously I got into a Six Nations squad, but probably with an injury or two. But just to get that recognition and that experience of being in camp, it drives you more and you want to be there the year after. Look, I'm happy with where I am at the moment and delighted to be with my home province. I'll just keep pushing. Obviously I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to get an international cap because I do. That's probably my next big goal."

Doing well in big games is the quickest way to fix that. And lunchtime today in the Sportsground against Montpellier qualifies as a big game. Leinster caned them last weekend, ploughing through a Connacht pack so light in the second row it was worrying. The return of Ultan Dillane eases that shortage a little, but with Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury long-term absentees, it's a problem not going away in a hurry. The pack will also be without Finlay Bealham and Seán O'Brien, and Marmion won't be available for a few weeks either. Montpellier will be massive. You can work out what they have in mind.

"We spoke about it on Tuesday morning when we came in. You can look at it two ways: you can sit back, feel sorry for ourselves all week or we can dust ourselves off - exactly what we've done - and move on. You learn a lot more from a game when you get hammered like that than you do from hammering a team. Yeah, we were caught out. I think a few parts of our game-plan were wrong. Our defence probably wasn't near what it had been.

"You can look at it two ways: it's going to happen again or instead as a team we can learn from it and completely turn it and change it over. I think it will test the character of this team on Sunday. I think there'd be something wrong if there wasn't a response. I think you're in the wrong game if you're not able to take them beatings and flip it around the week after. We have a nine-day turnaround so there's gonna be no excuses for sore bodies."

Five years on from Blade's brush with a change in career, there's not much doubt he's on the right path.

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