'Looking back, it's been a brilliant year for me'
Rising back-row star tackling one challenge at a time as he cements his status in the senior ranks, writes Marcus Ó Buachalla
On May 21, 2019, Leinster Rugby announced their senior contracts for the 2019/'20 season and among the list of 21 names was a young lad, not yet 21 and not yet finished his first year in the Academy. But the Leinster hierarchy had seen enough.
Nearly six months to the day since Scott Penny had lined up for Leinster in the Guinness PRO14, in a barn-storming try-scoring debut against Ospreys, here he was. On the same list of names as Messrs Healy, Henshaw and Sexton.
As he reflects on a whirlwind year, which also saw him star for the Ireland U-20s' Grand Slam-winning team, it's hard for him to take stock and really appreciate where he has come from. And before you think it was all happiness and light, he did miss out on the U-20 World Cup with a shoulder injury.
"I don't know what I wanted really from last season. Well sorry, I did, but I suppose when you are in your first year in the Academy you just want to come in and fit in, get on with the training, learn as much as you can, develop as much as you can and learn from the players around you. Maybe then make the Irish U-20s and just see from there."
Presumably though, when you see seasoned Irish back-row internationals and Lions in the queue ahead of you at your club, it keeps your feet nice and grounded too.
"Absolutely. That's what I mean when I mentioned personal goals or ambitions. You look at the players around you and you just want to make sure that you make the most of that opportunity. And that really was my focus. Learn from the players, learn from Leo Cullen, from Hugh Hogan, from Fogs (John Fogarty). Just make sure that I am there, in the moment and switched on and taking it all in."
So, fair to say that six PRO14 caps and a senior contract wasn't really on the agenda for him? He laughs.
"Of course making my debut was somewhere in my mind but I was also a realist. You are in the first year in the Academy. You're nearly more concerned about not messing up! So yeah, it's been a brilliant year to now look back on where I was this time last year to where I am now."
Up until that debut in the PRO14 he had been plying his trade with Noel McNamara's Leinster 'A' team en route to winning the inaugural Celtic Cup. It's a pathway that he believes helped him step up hugely.
"The nature of the Celtic Cup is that you play week in, week out, in a professional rugby environment, wearing a Leinster jersey, training and prepping the Leinster way, and then at the end of it all it was great to play a final in Parc y Scarlets and to win. It really stood to us.
"Lads like myself but also Jimmy O'Brien, Harry Byrne, Vakh Abdaladze, Rónan Kelleher, Ciarán Frawley. The list goes on. But we all took something from that campaign and it's great to see that stand to lads again this year. Michael Milne, Harry again and Rowan Osborne have taken their form in the Celtic Cup and have now made their own senior debuts."
So if you're good enough, you're old enough? Regardless of the Academy intake you are in?
"Yeah, I think so. Well, I certainly think that this has been the reality the last few years and has again been this year. If you put your hands up in training or in the games you play with Leinster 'A' or in the AIL with your club, Leo and Stuart (Lancaster) are not afraid to back you. I suppose it's happened to me and it's happened to three lads so far this year and hopefully more lads will get a chance in the coming months."
Right now, though, Penny is just focused on the next job. And for him, that's continual assessments and a college exam. And the small matter of Zebre away this weekend.
"I have started a Commerce degree in UCD this year as my course last year didn't suit. I was doing Financial Mathematics. It wasn't feasible to keep up both the course and the rugby.
"I am lucky that with Commerce the degree is continual assessment so today I had an exam and then group work after that. But before both of those I had gym and a pitch session with Leinster.
"Leinster and UCD are great in that they work around where you are at, so for example, if I have some college work, I can come in earlier to Leinster and get my gym work done earlier than the rest of the lads. I think we have seen with loads of lads the advantage of keeping up your education and I'd be keen to do that as well."
And the small matter of Zebre then looms large once the books have been put away.
"We had a great game against them last year over there. Well maybe it was a great game for the supporters watching on the day, not great for the review after. A mad game. 21-19 to us at half-time. It really was open and fast but we came away from it with a win but also knowing that we were in a proper game and they tested us hugely.
"They have added to their squad over the summer and should have some of their Italian players back this weekend from the World Cup, so I think we can expect more of the same from them."
Plus the added element that they have two men in their ranks that know the Leinster way inside out.
"They signed Mick (Kearney) and Ian (Nagle) in the summer so it's going to be an interesting battle at lineout time and scrum time. Plus they know a lot of our calls and plays.
"Like anyone playing against a former team, there is an edge, you want to show that the club were wrong to let you go. But it's rare you would be playing against two in the same game from the season just gone.
"We'll just focus on what we need to do and let the two lads get on with their game. If we get too focused on those two, we'll get picked off elsewhere. We just want to pick up where we left off before the break. Training was good this week, sharp on Monday like we hadn't had any break, so hopefully that transfers onto the pitch."