Tuesday 20 February 2018

'I always asked for a Munster jersey from Santa'

Rising scrum-half born and raised in Sligo but he grew up dreaming of playing for Reds

Declan Rooney

Over the years, we have seen plenty of dyed-in-the-wool Munster men don the red shirt and wear it with passion. If a player is born in the province, it might lead one to believe that they care more for the traditions of the jersey and the responsibilities that go with wearing it.

Yet, Sligo-born scrum-half Cathal Sheridan feels more at home in Thomond or Musgrave Park. Since he was a young boy, Munster has always been where he wanted to be.

"Growing up I always supported Munster. I always asked for a Munster jersey from Santa as a child. Playing for Munster is what I have always wanted to do," says the 24-year-old.

"I was born in Sligo, my dad is from there, but my mother is from close to Monaleen. As a result I was fully aware of what Munster was all about from an early age. It's funny, I'm six years living in Limerick now, but still the other day at the Munster 'A' game against Connacht some of the lads were asking who I was shouting for. There is no doubt in my mind anyway."

Despite the Munster blood coursing through his veins, Sheridan is still fiercely proud of where he grew up, which he is keen to point out is in fact Ransboro, a suburb of Sligo town, rather that Ballysadare where he went to secondary school. But it wasn't until he moved schools to Sligo Grammar, one of the bastions of Connacht Colleges rugby, that he contemplated a career in the game.

"I had played U-10 rugby with Sligo RFC, but I was always into everything else as well. I played Gaelic football for Coolera/Strandhill underage, and also played soccer and a bit of hurling as well. I ended up making the Connacht Youths team and I was then asked by one of the coaches at the Grammar if I'd consider moving there.

"At that age it was a big decision to move schools, but it proved to be one of the best decisions of my life. In the two years I spent there, my game came on leaps and bounds, but even academically it was a great move."

Sheridan certainly shone in schools rugby, so much so he was called up to the Connacht U-20s side, where he played for two seasons – Connacht didn't have an U-19s side at the time.

But he wasn't the first Sheridan to play at that level, as his older brother Donnacha had gained a reputation as a high-class centre, only for injury to curtail his ambitions.

INFLUENCE

"Growing up, Donnacha was always a big influence on me. He was the first of us to play rugby, so after watching him it was only natural that I'd follow in his footsteps," says Cathal.

"He was always throwing his body on the line and he picked up a pretty bad back injury, which means he cannot play much sport at all now.

"But just looking at him when he played for Connacht, the way they were always smartly presented in their shirts and ties after the game... they were very impressive. It really is etched in my memory and is probably the big reason I followed him into it."

After finishing school, the natural place for Sheridan to seek further education was Limerick. Close to the action at Thomond Park.

Again, Lady Luck favoured him. He signed up with a UL Bohemians team that included Dave Foley, Dave Kilcoyne and fellow Sligonian Sean Henry, all of whom were tutored by current Munster skills coach Ian Costello. The jigsaw pieces seemed to fall into place.

"At that stage I really wasn't sure if rugby would ever be for me," admits Sheridan. "I had no Irish U-20s experience, I had no offer from Connacht, but I got accepted into the UL Bohs academy.

"When that happened I thought it was the best thing in the world. I was training with guys all the same age as myself, all of us with the same targets. We were a disciplined bunch. We trained three or four days a week at 7.30 in the morning. It was an amazing environment to work in.

"Even just being in something called 'an academy' was great. And small things, like having a gear bag full of equipment handed to you, was something you remember."

Sheridan spent his first year in Limerick working with the UL Bohs lads, but after that the call to enter the Munster sub-academy arrived.

"I got the call to try out, but really at that stage I still didn't know what an academy was. It was hard going," he recalls. "As a sub-academy player you don't get paid. You have to train flat out and at the end of the day you have no energy left to do anything else.

"Only for the fact that my parents, Eileen and Oliver, were in a position to support me through college, I could never have gotten through it. But all of the lads were in the same boat. We kept our focus and determination and thankfully a few of us managed to make the breakthrough."

It took a few years working his way up through the Munster system, but eventually his chance arrived. And once he got a taste for the first team, Sheridan was never letting it go.

"I ended up on the bench for Pro12 games a good few times, but I was never able to break the duck. I got no run out for quite some time, which was a little frustrating, but looking back on it, I am happy that I didn't make my debut back then.

"When it did arrive, the nerves were gone, I knew that I was ready to play and that I belonged in the squad. I was fully confident that I could do the job.

"Then in the second half of last season I got the call up to the Heineken Cup squad. I'm not going to pretend that wasn't a huge thing for me. I wasn't involved on the field, but just getting the chance to taste the big-day atmosphere was huge for me.

"I know the competition for places is insane again this year, but it's a battle I'm ready for. I'm ready to push on and take every chance I get."

Irish Independent

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