Saturday 19 January 2019

'I could feel it squirting out of my head' - Leinster star Leavy on getting opened up and playing with his best friends

Dan Leavy realises that playing with lads of your own vintage and social circle is a powerful mix

1 April 2017; Robbie Henshaw of Leinster is congratulated by teammates, including Dan Leavy, left, during the European Rugby Champions Cup Quarter-Final match between Leinster and Wasps at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
1 April 2017; Robbie Henshaw of Leinster is congratulated by teammates, including Dan Leavy, left, during the European Rugby Champions Cup Quarter-Final match between Leinster and Wasps at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

On a lovely summer's evening in August 2013, Leinster were wrapping up an uneventful pre-season friendly against Northampton Saints when they threw a 19-year-old flanker into the fray. With about 10 minutes to go it probably passed as the safe period, if there is such a thing against a Premiership side packing most of their firepower.

By the time his 10 minutes were up Dan Leavy had a try to his credit and enough carries to get himself on the noticeboard. Yes, it was one of those games with more changes than Connolly Station at tea time on a Friday, but rugby is never passive. If it was a swimming pool then Leavy had been tossed in at the deep end, and had shown he could swim.

Dan Leavy injured against the Wasps.
Dan Leavy injured against the Wasps.

It was just seven weeks after the Lions had won in Australia. The young flanker had looked so good that night that we were thinking of him as a candidate for New Zealand 2017. So, for a player whose performances last season made for exponential progress, what was the delay?

"For the first three years after I came out of school I was basically kind of plagued with injuries," he says. "I went from a schools set-up where it was light enough training, well not light training, we were training hard, but it wasn't anything compared to in here. And then I went from that, thrown in to a professional set-up where I trained so hard. And I didn't know how to recover, to match the demands on my body. And I just started to break down.

"It's mad now 'cos I'm looking at players like James Ryan and really young lads coming through and I'm almost like their older brother, like telling them what to do. I was in their place, getting injured, struggling for seasons, and now if they're picking up niggles I'm telling them exactly what to do, how to rehab and how to get it right and make sure it doesn't happen again. I probably should charge a consultancy fee!

"I had three pretty tough seasons. The only silver lining now is I know where the alarm bells are, and I know how to look after myself. I've learned how to keep fit and I haven't had a serious injury in two years - touch wood that will continue and my ankle (from Friday night against Cardiff) will be fine."

Dan Leavy is an immense competitor, a very good rugby player seemingly with the wit and will to become better than that. Not unusually on the Irish rugby landscape he has been shaped by the schools system.

Some are worshippers at that altar; others wouldn't enter the church; and in between there is a chunk who are ambivalent. For the in-betweeners there are episodes of the annual soap opera that are compelling, just as there are chunks of the script that should be rewritten - specifically to delay the onset of such intense pressure until senior rather than junior cup.

Leavy knows exactly where he stands. He is in the small-enough club who have captained teams to success in the Leinster Senior Cup. In his case it was with St Michael's in 2012. At the time we were aware of his stature on that scene. Luke McGrath and himself were the marquee names, so when they had to travel deep into injury time to survive against Roscrea early in that campaign, it got some attention.

"Yeah that's going to haunt me for the rest of my life," he says. "It was a good lesson for us. It was one of the hardest games I've ever played in. I remember I was banged up afterwards and probably didn't sleep a wink that night. Myself, Rory O'Loughlin and one other player went straight to Vincent's after the game. I had to get my ear drained. Rory had concussion. I can't remember what the other injury was. Went home, tried to get to sleep and just sat on my bed thinking: 'What just happened there?' In fairness to Roscrea they were an incredible team, but yeah it could have gone belly up that day."

For those who handle that kind of heat there surely is a benefit if the pro game is going to be their living.

"Absolutely. There's such pressure. I absolutely loved my experience. I think I played my first game when I was 14, on the Junior Cup team, against CBC Monkstown in Donnybrook. And I'd never actually felt nerves like it before. I just loved the pressure, loved the bigger stage. I don't know if that's a personal thing but I think all the big-time players step up when that happens. Schools level. . . some people might find it wasn't for them, but then they're in the wrong line of work."

It was clear from early in his career that this business was for him. Pain thresholds don't vary much from person to person, but pain tolerance is an altogether different ball game. In Leavy's case there is a yawning gap between the time his brain registers discomfort and messages his system that he's had enough.

There have been a fair few incidents of this, most recently on Ireland's tour of the US and Japan two months ago. Perhaps the most colourful example, however, came earlier in the season, in Leinster's Champions Cup quarter-final, against Wasps. He was playing a vital role in the build-up to Isa Nacewa's try when he had his head opened. It was as if someone had cracked open a bottle of red, and poured it over his head. In fairness, he carried on regardless.

"It was actually Joe Launchbury trying to make a cover tackle and I'd made a bit of a carry," he says. "A half bust, and I was looking for an offload and half turning but didn't get anything, but his knee clocked me in the head. As I was placing the ball back I just felt this really hot something on my head. And I just put my hand there and to say my hand was just fully drenched with blood. Not just a little bit. Fully drenched. I could feel it squirting out of my head as well. Like f**k! But on such a big stage it was all or nothing so, 'ok we'll sort this one when we get a chance to sort it'. Got a pretty cool picture out of it as well."

Why stop when you're having such a good time? Which clearly he is. Not many would find ready parallels between All-Ireland hurling and Leinster rugby but when Leavy was in Croke Park a couple of weeks ago he identified with the overwhelming sense of who the teams were representing.

More than that, if you're doing it with fellas of your own vintage, and social circle, it's a powerful mix. The vibe in Leinster these days is that the kids have bypassed the loonies and taken over the asylum, and are running it their own way.

"Yeah I agree. It's brilliant to be a part of it. Last season there were so many young players coming through and taking massive ownership, so Rory O'Loughlin, Garry Ringrose came on really well, (James) Tracey, Tadhg Furlong - all these lads who are young and just bursting on the scene, but last year was their big year and they did really well.

"It's just such a pleasure but as well it's awesome to see lads your own age, your best mates, it felt more like 'our team' than this Leinster team with senior players. There's just something about playing with your best mates. You'll really dig in. You'll fight for your best mates, obviously. And it's great crack playing with young lads, celebrating the wins and, it's not that it wasn't beforehand, it was just a little bit more distant maybe with like 'older' people.

"People who are 10 years older than you - obviously you're mates with them but you're not going to have the same connection as people your own age. It's a lot like schools rugby."

On Friday night in the RDS, Cardiff put themselves in the way of this tidal wave of young talent, and another home win. This time it required a surge off the bench for Leinster to put away their opponents. Leavy was part of that posse. Within 60 seconds he had won a turnover that broke Cardiff's momentum. Five minutes later he went over on his ankle, which may keep him out of the trip to South Africa, which leaves on Tuesday.

But with the ice well broken on his international career, what does he have to do aside from stay fit at key times? Well, you can imagine Joe Schmidt presenting him with a snag list that needs fixing. At the bottom would be a poaching technique that should be giving referees fewer opportunities to penalise him. And at the top would be a change of course before he gets labelled as an outlaw.

Against Clermont last season, he had a try disallowed for having held on illegally to Aurélien Rougerie. And last weekend in Newport he obstructed his immediate opponent, James Thomas, in opening the door for Jamison Gibson-Park to open the scoring. The refereeing team managed to miss the latter, remarkably.

"The Clermont one I was definitely in the wrong," he says. "I should have taken him off his feet, but I held him too long. It's kind of haunted me since but I think I always learn my lesson. Then last weekend I was scrummaging and their flanker broke before the scrum (was over), before the ball was back in play and we got away with it, so that's kind of a grey area. So you know, I probably should have pared that in a little bit to be honest."

It's easy enough to fix without losing the edge that makes him such a competitive animal. Four years on from that explosive introduction, Dan Leavy looks like he could be around for a few tours yet.

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