It's been a long road but now I'm almost there – Copeland
ROBIN Copeland still looks a little wide-eyed as he settles his massive frame into one of the plush chairs at Ireland's team base.
The 26-year-old from Gorey has taken the scenic route to the centre of the rugby universe and, after being named at No 8 in the Wolfhounds team to face England Saxons tomorrow, is now one step away from full international honours and the Six Nations.
Four years in England and Wales have paved the way for this homecoming. The St Mary's man once rubbed shoulders with his new squad mates in the Leinster Academy as a gangly second-row, while he lined out alongside Jonathan Sexton and Jack McGrath at club level before embarking on his journey.
A season in Plymouth was followed by a year with Rotherham and then a step closer to the big time with Cardiff Blues, where his ball-carrying abilities alerted Munster and Ireland to his talents. Next season he will wear the red jersey, before then, he will pull on the green.
It has been a life less glamorous, but you sense the hard road will give him an appreciation of it all. It hasn't always been pretty.
"When I first moved to Plymouth, I was living in a tiny, s****y apartment attached to the club that had mushrooms growing in the bath, it was freezing cold, damp, horrible," he recalled with a smile yesterday.
"My contract was so bad, I got a job behind the bar in the golf club as well to try to pay for it. Like, I was skint, but I was playing rugby and I was happy enough. I had been a student for the last four years and I was still living a student life, nothing really had changed dramatically.
"I'm not really one to complain anyway, but looking back that was the lowest point."
Still, he got on with it, bulking up as he went from being a prolific try-scoring, club second-row in Ireland to an unstoppable ball-carrier capable of standing up to Toulon, while wearing the pink jersey of the Cardiff Blues.
Moving to Wales via Rotherham Titans put him in the shop window for Ireland, playing well against the provinces and in the Heineken Cup brought him more and more attention from home.
Signing on with Munster helped and last week a call from a member of the international set-up's medical team put him on high alert that his call-up was coming.
"It was a big deciding factor in me going to Munster. It was a chance to be at home, move up the ladder," he explained.
"I rang and talked to Joe about that. He said: 'you know, if you want to play for Ireland the best place for you to be is in Ireland'. Being here, this week, has shown me what he was talking about. The systems that they run have filtered down into club level.
"I had a bit more homework to do than a lot of the guys who had played for the clubs. I don't know anybody as well as they know each other. All those little things do help.
"I'm looking forward to joining next year and seeing if I can build from there," said Copeland.
It has been a roundabout route to the top, but he is one step away and has no regrets about his unorthodox path that started when he checked himself out of the Leinster Academy, realising that balancing rugby and university was too much for him.
"Nothing happens in a straight line," he reflected. "There are always setbacks. Winning never happens in a straight line. Your goals never happen in a straight line. It is always up and down.
"In fairness to Leinster, they saw a potential, but they knew mentally I wasn't quite right. They said to me that the same offer was there for me next year. I was, like, 'I don't think I'm ready for that yet.'
"I stopped, I did full-time uni, got my degree and rugby was going well for me in my final year at uni, playing for Mary's and I had an opportunity to go abroad.
"I don't think in that first year at Plymouth I thought it was going to lead somewhere significant. I was fresh out of college, I was, like, 'I'll give it a bash, if it doesn't work, I'm not going to lose anything'.
"But then I realised I had an opportunity there and I had maybe what it took to make a good career out of it.
"And it was only about three years ago that I really decided to put my heart and soul into it, and thankfully... like I said, it's been a long road, but it's started to come right."
It's just as well he did.