Tuesday 21 May 2019

'If you heard Seánie, you knew that it was time to listen'

Big Interview: Max Deegan

Next generation: Max Deegan hard at work in training
Next generation: Max Deegan hard at work in training

Stuart Lancaster summed it up this week when he acknowledged that while a lot of focus might well be on the Six Nations at the moment, all the focus of those within the walls of Leinster Rugby HQ in UCD was on this block of Guinness PRO14 games. It is a view that is echoed by one of the young guns left back at base, former World U-20 Player of the Year Max Deegan.

"I think we have seen last season in particular the benefit that your position in the table can have on your end-of-season run-in.

Max Deegan alongside veteran Seán O’Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
Max Deegan alongside veteran Seán O’Brien. Photo: Sportsfile

"Obviously with the conferences and then the play-offs you can avoid an extra game by finishing in the top two. And then if you finish top you get a home semi-final.

"That led to a free weekend last season and also that home draw against Munster a week after the Champions Cup final in Bilbao.

"That game was so tight in the end, it's the smallest of margins, being at home, the support and the atmosphere.

"It's hard to quantify the impact on the scoreboard but I know we appreciated every little bit of it and it definitely got us over the line.

"That's why this game is so important. We know the impact it can have on that end-of-season table."

That Munster game that Deegan references was to his last involvement of the season having not made the squad for the PRO14 final a week later, but his late penalty win on the deck lives sharply in the memory.

It was one of many stand-out moments for the former St Michael's back-row in what was just his second season of senior rugby.

He played 18 games, starting 10, and made his Champions Cup debut against Saracens, the reigning European champions.

He scored five tries including two against this weekend's opposition, Zebre. He looks back on the last 18 or so months with quiet satisfaction - he has added another 14 caps and three tries this term - but with the desire to not rest on his laurels either.

"I've been really enjoying it. My goal has always been to get better and every time you take another step you see why. The challenge and the bar is always raised.

Quality

"With the competition we have here in Leinster there is always that edge from within driving us and I suppose we are just lucky that we have quality people like Cillian (Reardon) and Charlie (Higgins) and the rest of our S&C staff demanding the best from us."

Their last game was three weekends ago against the Scarlets and a narrow RDS victory ensued.

Since then there has been a week off followed by two weeks of prep. Having spent a few days away in Dubai with his girlfriend, Deegan is ready to go again.

"We had 10 weeks in a row which was tough mentally as much as anything so I think we were all looking forward to the break. But nobody switched off completely.

"We all had a few running and gym sessions to do in the week off so when we all came back we were good to go. With lads away with Ireland, nobody wants to miss a beat and everyone wants to take the opportunities."

With the majority of the Leinster international contingent unavailable, it will be once again a mixture of youth and experience that takes to the field in the Stadio Zaffanella.

It's enough to test the most experienced of squads, never mind one sprinkled with academy talent.

"The Italian teams, in particular away from home, can be very tricky. I think all of Zebre's wins this season in the PRO14 and in the Challenge Cup have come at home.

"They've beaten Bristol, Edinburgh - good teams. Obviously last season we lost to Benetton at the RDS but we've seen from both Zebre and Benetton that they can be very difficult to play against.

"They always target us up front and in particular with the maul or with defensive lineouts you need to be on point.

"We just have to make sure we bring that mentality to the game from minute one."

As he discusses the mentality required to face into the game tomorrow, a few of Leo Cullen's comments on the soon-to-be-departing Seán O'Brien spring to mind, in particular the impression of a fierce competitor and team-mate.

"Absolutely. For me with Seánie, he was a player that I obviously looked up to coming in to Leinster and then once in here he was quickly a fella that I took note of.

"He was the voice I would listen out for. What did he say, what was his advice, on the pitch what was his take on something.

"You heard Seánie, you knew it was time to listen. And I think all the young players, not just back-rowers would say that. And that is before you saw how he applied himself.

"Just the ferocity and the intent he brings to every contact, how he wants to dominate every training session, never mind every game.

"Because on game day he is the guy you 100pc want to go to war with. You know he won't be found wanting and you just want to be there with him."

The temptation for all young back-rowers in Leinster is to try to emulate their heroes but Deegan knows with O'Brien departing there is no point trying to be the next 'Tullow Tank', instead he has to just focus on what he can do to help the team.

Weaknesses

"I think sometimes we try to work on our weaknesses and of course you need to do that but you also have to realise that what you are good at is what got you here too.

"So back those skills and do extra work on those, pick the brains of the senior players and the coaches. Players like Rhys (Ruddock).

"Such an incredibly hard-working player and a decent man too to go to and to look for that advice.

"For us younger players at Leinster, we are very lucky to be in an environment where you can rub shoulders with Ireland captains and Lions and whatever. It's an exciting few months ahead and we all want to play our part starting tomorrow."

Irish Independent

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