'I struggled with the criticism at the start, but I've grown up'
Cronin eager to prove doubters wrong and nail Ireland berth
"Some things you never forget," says Sean Cronin as he recalls the first steps of his journey with a wry smile.
Ardscoil Ris were short of hookers for their Bowen Shield (Munster U-16) campaign and the then full-back, who by his own admission had had a "couple of good summers and put on a few pounds", stepped forth and bound up with a prop on either side for the first time.
"I got the stuffing knocked out of me," he remembers. But while many in his situation would have scuttled back into the high-numbered jerseys, Cronin stuck with it and built a professional career, showing a stubbornness and determination that have become his hallmark.
Now 27, he describes rugby as a "whirlwind" and has been shaken up and spat out along the way. Having taken the road less travelled, the Limerick man playing for Leinster via Galway is an Ireland international who has won the vast majority of his 30 caps off the bench.
His dynamism in the loose and speed have never been questioned, but perhaps unsurprisingly for a converted back, his throwing has been heavily scrutinised, while his decision to leave Connacht, where he started every game, to do battle with Richardt Strauss for the Heineken Cup champions' No2 jersey in 2011 has also been widely questioned.
Last summer, in perhaps the biggest setback of all, he found himself the only established Ireland international picked to be sent on the 'Emerging Ireland' tour to Georgia, only to get a late reprieve when Rory Best was called up for the Lions.
His initial relegation to the Georgian trip was, he admits now, a kick in the teeth, but he bounced back and, just five months later, he was seconds away from going down in history as one of the All Black slayers, until Ryan Crotty's late try put paid to all that.
Criticism and adversity have presented themselves throughout Cronin's career, but through hard work and a thick skin he has managed to keep on an upward curve.
"You always have your barstool commentators or people in the media who will have a pop off you no matter what," he shrugs. "I think it was the Ospreys game where I hit 17 out of 18 line-outs and I still had people in the media criticising me over my throwing."
It is a fact of life for professional hookers. Last week, Cronin watched RTE's documentary on his former team-mate Ronan O'Gara and noted some familiar themes -- particularly the former Ireland fly-half struggling with life on the bench.
Hookers and goalkickers have another thing in common -- the scrutiny that hangs over their primary on-field function.
And, while the No 10 gets all of the plaudits when he nails the winning kick, the No 2 rarely receives more than a passing mention for nailing his throw, but bears the brunt of the criticism when things go wrong out of touch.
Dealing with that scrutiny has not always been easy, but Cronin has learned to handle it.
"I'd have to say I struggled with it at the start -- well, maybe not struggled with it, but it weighed a bit on me," he says.
"I've grown up in that fashion -- I can look at myself in the mirror and say, 'look, things didn't go well today, move on'. It doesn't bother me any more -- I'm bigger than that because if you have one more good game you're flavour of the month.
"It is good to have people like (Leinster coaches) Greg Feek and Jono Gibbes at training, driving home that it is about the lift, the throw, the jump -- if everything works we're confident we're going to get the ball."
That attitude combined with his work-rate helped Cronin overcome one of the biggest setbacks of his career, the demotion to the Tbilisi Cup squad last summer behind Best, Strauss and Munster's Mike Sherry.
It helped that he ended up making the plane on the senior tour by default, but his approach in the United States and Canada ensured that he hung on in there, and now he is firmly in the frame for Six Nations selection after featuring in all three November Tests.
"I'm not going to beat around the bush. I was extremely disappointed. I didn't know where I stood really, but that's life," he recalls.
"Rugby is a whirlwind at times. Sometimes it's up, sometimes it's down. It was gut-wrenching at the time, but I got over it pretty quick because I was called back in and I went from there. This season has gone well."
Fast-forward to November and that perseverance meant that, when Best broke his arm after 14 minutes against the All Blacks with Ireland 14-0 up, Cronin was in.
"Sometimes you come into a game that's 100mph, this one was 1,000mph so you literally didn't have a moment to think, you're in the moment and I was gone from there," he says. "It was an incredible game to play in, it was obviously gut-wrenching at the end and I think we'll learn a lot from it -- a hell of a lot."
Before Christmas, Joe Schmidt assembled his Ireland squad in Maynooth and picked through the wreckage of that devastating defeat.
"It was a major focus point of the camp, the fact that maybe mentally did we struggle to shut it out? Was it more of a mental issue than a physical issue?" he says.
"It was a hugely physically draining game. We put in a huge performance and came away with nothing, but I think we're focusing a lot on the mental side -- could we have done this better? Were we in the moment? Different areas.
"The one word that we're looking for is consistency. They got it in 2009 and won a Grand Slam and I think that there is no reason that, in 2014... if the Irish team gets their stuff together, anything is possible."
The Six Nations is looming and Cronin is excited by Ireland's prospects and hopeful that he can push the now-returned Best for a starting spot.
First, though, is the small matter of helping Leinster out of their Heineken Cup pool, and that task begins tomorrow in Castres.
In the absence of Sean O'Brien, the hooker's dynamism will be needed, while he knows that the French side will target the line-out and scrum.
"It's always better to have your destiny in your own hands," Cronin says of the province's situation. "Two wins and we're through -- if we don't win on Sunday then we'll be under serious pressure and it will come down to the last game but I think we have the capabilities to go to France and win."
It won't be easy, but Leinster have been in tight spots and come out the other side before. So has their hooker, but Cronin is now thriving as first-choice and is determined to leave his critics in the rear-view mirror.
Castres v Leinster - a guide to the game
Formguide: Castres WLWLW, Leinster WLLWW
Betting: Castres 17/10, Leinster 4/9, Draw 22/1
Handicap: Castres (+5) 10/11, Leinster (-5) 10/11, Draw (5.0) 20/1
Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)
The captain (pictured) needs to put the issues surrounding his future to one side and lead from the front today, with Leinster needing ball carriers to step forward in Sean O'Brien's absence. Heaslip's form has been strong and he played a major role in the away win at Ospreys in October -- Leinster will be looking for more of the same from him today.
THREE THINGS LEINSTER MUST DO
Keep their discipline
Castres rely on penalties for oxygen, playing a suffocating game that forces opponents into concessions and building a score through the boot. Rory Kockott might be absent, but the game plan is unlikely to change, so Leinster need to keep the referee onside.
Securing the ball from their own line-out and scrums will be crucial and Devin Toner has a big role to play from touch. Castres operate a destructive defensive line-out and will target Sean Cronin's throw, while the French side will also look for dominance in the scrum to put pressure on Leinster and force some of those penalties.
Away from home in France, it can all be about beginning as you mean to go on and Leinster could do with striking early and laying down a marker. Castres are in trouble in the group and are down a number of their key leaders, so if Leinster can get ahead early and silence the Stade Pierre Antoine they'll be on their way.