Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 January 2018

Hagan determined to upset the odds

Jamie Hagan
Jamie Hagan
Keith Fox helps Robbie Henshaw to keep cool during training in Houston
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

AFTER the final whistle sounded in last month's Pro12 final, the photographers flocked to the three departing amigos: Jonny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Joe Schmidt.

Away from the melee, Jamie Hagan ambled over towards the main stand and, almost taken aback by the warm reception, the departing 6ft 4ins, 18-stone tighthead broke down in tears.

The emotion that flowed through the Balbriggan native was borne of the frustration of an unfulfilling two-year return at his home province and the redemption that came after he had been told he was no longer required and had signed for London Irish.

The arrival of Michael Bent from New Zealand had hastened his exit, with the capping of the Kiwi off the plane a real kick in the teeth.

That Hagan finished the season coming off the bench in two finals while Bent was playing in the British and Irish Cup, and that he now finds himself in the Irish squad ahead of his former clubmate, must be sweet, even if he is relatively diplomatic about it.

He knows that playing in England will hinder his international chances, but he also is fully aware that tighthead props are not in ample supply at the moment.

There are three in Houston, where Ireland trained in 25-degree heat and 77pc humidity for 45 minutes yesterday morning and came through with no additional injury worries.

The incumbent Mike Ross is joined by Declan Fitzpatrick and the uncapped Hagan.

If he is to be called up regularly from London, then he needs to impress against the US and Canada over the next week.

"It was tough, obviously, when he arrived," the Ireland newcomer says of Bent who arrived off the plane and was whisked into the Ireland training camp and capped against South Africa within a fortnight.

"It was a tough pill to swallow. The opportunity arose to go to London and I took it. Their coaching staff were very keen on me. I had a couple of discussions with Joe and the staff at Leinster and they were more than happy to let me leave. My decision was made for me.

"It wasn't frustration at Michael Bent, it was frustration at the scenario that developed. I wasn't playing at the time, he had been playing NPC and was match fit.

"He's a nice guy and, at the end of the day, he's Irish. That's the situation. It can only drive you on."

Drive him on it did and he forced his way ahead of Bent and into the Leinster matchday squad for both finals.

Some might have played out their contracts, knowing that better days lay ahead, but Hagan says he didn't want to be caught in that trap.

"I was working really hard and I said to the coaches, 'look, I'm contracted until the end of the season and I want to play' and eventually they listened to me," he explained.

"I never wanted to go through the motions, you can't be like that. Some players probably would say, 'I'm leaving, I have a three-year contract, I'll just take my foot off the pedal'.

"I've been in that situation; when I was leaving Connacht I had a three-year deal with Leinster and I rested on my laurels a little bit. It is a hard lesson to learn, but I had to learn the hard way. I don't want to go back to that.

CONDITIONING

"I'll always stay on top of my conditioning, it was a hard learning curve."

It ultimately led to two winning final appearances at the RDS and the emotion of the occasion got to the big man.

"In both finals it was very emotional. That time last year I was walking around the stadium in a suit. This time I was on the field, albeit for 20 minutes in the first one and five in the second one.

"Still, it was great to be on the pitch after a year of hardship to be there," he recalled.

"It got a bit emotional, the fans in Leinster – I've come to know them and they have come to know me and they are great people. It's my home province, my home town. It's hard. It is a nice memory to have."

Now he is focused on putting himself into the Ireland frame before moving out of sight and out of mind in London.

"I don't think there has been a successful forward who has gone abroad and come back to play for Ireland. It is a massive challenge, the statistics are against me," he mused, reckoning his challenge is to become the first.

At 26, he remains young for a man in his position. The odds were against him this season and he overcame them. Now he must do it again.

Irish Independent

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