Everything in its right place for team player Jennings
Shane Jennings has always stood out as a team player, writes Brendan Fanning
Last week Shane Jennings arranged to have a cup of coffee on his day off with Conor Gilsenan, a young backrower who is on his way out of the Leinster squad. Perhaps it was the other way round for it would make sense that Gilsenan, heading to London Irish next season having had a loan spell with Connacht, should go in search of some advice from a senior citizen. And Jennings would be in the Obi-Wan category in that set-up.
The younger man was 10 minutes late for the appointment. Not good. As the clock ticked on, Jennings considered leaving, and imagining that a text would then follow at some point wondering where he had got to, he resolved to ignore it. You can picture the scene: steam wafting out of his ears – the default position for a man who is never more than a hop, skip and jump away from a snarl.
The earliest memories of Shane Jennings, now 32, are of a schools player with a rare combination of drive and dexterity. It got him through or around players who were bigger than him. One image lingers, from a wet night in Donnybrook when, as a fifth year, he was leading Leinster schools against a typically big and physical Australia side. It wasn't just his appetite for combat that stood out, rather his ability to mix grunt and skill in the same exchange. And to keep coming back for more. It was December 1998, before Ireland had genuinely opened its house to the idea of breeding a generation of players for the professional game, but here was an outstanding candidate.
Another image, from Lansdowne Road, presents itself. It is the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup in 2005 and Leinster, who came through to the knockouts as top seeds, are up against Leicester, who scraped through by the skin of their Tiger teeth. Jennings is sitting on the bench watching his team get bullied and battered by a far meaner outfit. By this stage he is tiring of looking at Keith Gleeson filling the seven jersey. So he signs on for the bullies the next season. And of course he will fit right in.
When he comes back to Dublin two seasons later, along with Leo Cullen who had made the jump with him, Jennings is credited with playing a lead role in the remodelling of Leinster – from a squad with talent but average desire to one with a hard edge and a ruthlessness about winning.
"A lot has been made out of that," he says. "It definitely was (transformed) but it wasn't just myself and Leo. The whole place grew up a bit and that came from the top down. It came from players buying in and it was a good group of players who had this attitude and that group of players – eight or 10 of them – have led that over the last number of years.
"Younger guys have seen that, like Rhys (Ruddock) and Jack (Conan) and they want to have some ownership of the place. They obviously see there is value in that way of doing things and they have carried it on.
"Matt (O'Connor) sees that. Matt has come from Leicester. I think we all understand what kind of club that is and the values that they have built into them and he has brought that across but it's something that has to be worked on every day. And, like, you can't go around patting yourself on the back – we're great, we've got a great culture. Culture gets tested every day and anyone who says it doesn't is lying. Because we slip up some days and you try and address it, you try and improve. Thankfully, generally speaking, it's very good. But for me, if you lose, that's not good. That's testing what you are talking about – this edge. You've got to have guys who are hungry, who get pissed off if they see someone else lifting a trophy, especially at the RDS. It's pretty personal."
It's as well that his club career has worked out so well, for there is a yawning gap where all his international caps should be. In clubland there is the unique haul (along with Leo Cullen) of Heineken, Amlin, Pro12 and Premiership medals, with the immediate prospect of more to come. And for Ireland, 13 caps – six of them as a starter – with the prospect of no more to come. Consider that over the same period David Wallace and Gleeson played 93 times for Ireland between them and it explains why Jennings' return is short.
"In terms of my Ireland career? Not happy," he says. "But like what can I do? I'm not getting picked – I haven't been picked in the past. I've got 13 caps – would have preferred to have more but in saying that the experience I've had has been fantastic. I've loved every minute of it. I loved playing with Ireland when I had the opportunity; I've loved going on tour – the World Cup was probably the highlight of my career; I thought it was just a brilliant couple of weeks, so yeah, representing your country? For me, there's nothing like it.
"The best moment I've ever had in rugby was getting my first cap, in Argentina. I would have loved to have 50 caps. I would have loved to captain my country. And I probably would have dreamed of it when I was 17, but it didn't happen. But I can look at myself and say I gave it a good lash. I've been happy with the influence I've had in this place. I enjoyed myself at Leicester. I've had an unbelievable career – 12/13 years at it and a few bumps and knocks but generally speaking I've been good.
"I've had friends of mine who had to retire ahead of time so I consider myself very lucky. The success I've had in Leinster has been very rewarding because a lot of guys put a lot of effort into it so I certainly don't have any regrets in that way: 'I wish I had have done this; I wish I had have done that'. It is what it is, and you make the most of it. If a coach doesn't want to pick you that's fine. Coaches have their favourite players and you've got to accept that sometimes. I wish I could have impressed them more, but I didn't."
Matt O'Connor wouldn't be in that number. Although their paths didn't cross at Welford Road, you'd imagine it would have been a happy junction if they had. O'Connor succeeded Joe Schmidt in Leinster looking to beef up a game where the attack was already the sharpest on the circuit. So defence with a capital D has got a lot of attention. And that suits Jennings fine.
"I don't think to be fair as a group of players we've given him (O'Connor) what he wants in that department," he says. "I think at times we've been hit and miss, and other times very good. It was encouraging that we did perform well in defence last week because they (Ulster) were giving it to us and we were under pressure at times. But we held to the system and the way we wanted to defend. It gives us good confidence that when we do what we're told – under pressure – it pays off.
"Even when they made line breaks our scramble was good. We've got guys who are willing to work and go to a dark place and put their body on the line for the team. There was a lot of bodies getting hurt, like Sean Cronin was in a bad way and was still putting his body in front of the bus. So we've got a few guys who are doing that and it helps us out. And that's what's really rewarding, when you come through games like that, and you've been up against a good team such as Ulster who are fucking strong, aggressive men and they're going at you. But we held steady and that builds confidence in our defensive system. We're not getting too carried away though. It was good but we'll have to do a lot better if we want to win the trophy because it's been a tough old couple of months to get to here. So we want to do it justice."
Two more images present themselves. One is from the dressing room in Ravenhill three weeks ago. He was calmly preparing for the storm and decided to change his studs. One of the studs snapped, leaving a lump of metal sticking out. No problem, he had spare boots in his bag. When he was tying them up one of the laces snapped. If you are a card-carrying, if undiagnosed, member of the OCD club, this could be a brain-melting experience. He recovered to the point where he would be Leinster's only try-scorer on the night in a squeaky, two-point win.
For Jennings, the obsession with order affects everything from dress codes to punctuality to house keeping. He says his gaff is like a hospital. Well, cleaner, hopefully. At the same time he has learned to accept that others take a different approach to life and it's possible for both to arrive to the same target at the same time. You wonder though how his fellow pros regard him?
"Genuinely, I don't know," he says. "It's funny because you always have an opinion of yourself and you try and do what you think is right. You do what you're told by your coaches and you'd have levels of communication with coaches or strength and conditioning guys and you'd have an understanding of where you want to go or things like that. From meeting the young guy yesterday – Gilly – he said he thought I was always a bit of a grumpy fucker, or what way to approach me. So people have different ways. I probably am grumpy to younger guys but I think they're one way because I don't really know them."
And how would he like to be viewed? "I'd like to be regarded as a guy who's selfless and would put the team first, because no one, no matter who you are in the organisation, is bigger than the team. When people realise that it's a pretty powerful weapon. And we're fortunate: we have a lot of guys who feel that way and think that way and operate that way. And you can see it when guys are disappointed, as they have been last week and they will be next week with selection, they put it to the side and they fulfil their role for the betterment of the team.
"I think genuinely that's been the success of this place over the last couple of years, where you have whether it's me not getting picked, whether it's Kevin McLaughlin. whether it's Eoin Reddan, Isaac Boss, or Trev Hogan back in the day, whoever it may have been, they were characters where you'd see them and they didn't get selected and they'd be working just as hard as if they had got picked. Helping the team out of whatever it was. It's nice to be involved in a group like that because the group that gives to each other will, I feel at the end of the day, be successful. And I think that's one of the reasons why we have been successful."
Incidentally, he hung around for Gilsenan to turn up last week, which gives us the final image. You will be familiar with the look he takes on when something goes against Leinster on the field. Not wounded or haunted, more: 'I'm doing my best not to explode here'. At least he waited.
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