Garryowen star highlights value of AIL in earning pro contract with Munster
At 25 and working full-time as a teacher, it's fair to assume that Neil Cronin thought his chance of playing professional rugby had been and gone.
In the 2014-15 season, Cronin got a brief taste of what it would have been like when he regularly trained with Munster and ended up making four appearances for his home province.
However, the Limerick native never managed to take that next step and secure a permanent contract, so instead he returned to the All-Ireland League (AIL) with Garryowen and refocused his attention on his teaching studies.
Three years on from that disappointment, Cronin has fought his way back into the Munster reckoning and has deservedly earned himself a one-year deal ahead of next season.
This is a story, not only of redemption, but one that again highlights the value of the club game in Ireland.
The provincial academy systems are thriving but sometimes players fall through the cracks simply because they take longer than others to develop.
So often the AIL is forgotten about in terms of the role it plays in the bigger picture of Irish rugby and Cronin is the latest example that proves there is still room for a late bloomer.
One of the more recent such success stories to come from the league was Darragh Fanning who, following a brief stint with Connacht, returned to St Mary's and then, at 27, was handed his chance by Leinster.
At the end of this season the much-maligned British and Irish (B&I) Cup will be disbanded and while the competition has had its merits, this is a perfect opportunity for the IRFU to focus even more of their attention on the AIL.
There is a suggestion that a restructuring of the league is in the offing in a couple of years' time and the early sounds are certainly promising.
Week-in, week-out, we are seeing the importance of academy players - or, in Cronin's case, guys looking for a second chance - lining out for their clubs.
Joey Carbery speaks highly of how quickly his development was accelerated by playing for Clontarf and, considering that he went from lining out on a Saturday afternoon with 'Tarf, to pulling the strings for Ireland in their historic first win over the All Blacks within six months, that path didn't work out too badly for him at all.
That said, for all of the criticism that the B&I Cup has received over the years, its absence will leave a void that will need to be filled as soon as possible.
There has also been some talk of reintroducing an inter-pro series, which would be interesting, but the AIL is an ample breeding ground and the more success stories such as Cronin's that we see, can only be a good thing for Irish rugby as a whole.
Cronin has been a model of consistency for Garryowen over the last few seasons and never let his head drop after being overlooked by Munster.
A goal-kicking scrum-half, the former Castletroy College student has long been one of the AIL's standout performers and was rewarded for that form back in February when he captained the Ireland club side.
"I'm not surprised at all, because he's just got so many elements to his game," Morgan Lennon, who worked as head coach with the club side for the last two years, told the Irish Independent of Cronin.
"He's an exceptional place-kicker; he just doesn't miss. His box kicking is exceptional as well. He's always last in off the pitch so he's got that work ethic.
"His decision making is really what sets him apart. Neily will control the tempo of a game when he needs to control it.
"I would believe that when you're coaching, you actually become a better player so that's possibly part of his development too.
"He's a great character - quite mature. He's really well-respected by the other players. He's a very good player.
"He speaks a lot of sense and doesn't talk when he doesn't need to talk. Everybody listens (to him). You can tell the respect that carries in the group.
"In general, the standard in the leagues has improved. From my perspective, when you go to pick the club side, it's incredibly difficult. It's great to see that Munster are looking at guys like Neil when they have a gap at scrum-half."
Growing up, rugby always dominated the agenda at home and watching the strides that Cronin's older brother Sean made with Leinster and Ireland was a constant source of inspiration.
The pair's younger brother Liam has swapped the black and blue of Shannon for the sky blue of Garryowen, which meant that he and Neil have got to line out together this season.
There aren't many families in Limerick who are split down the middle in terms of supporting Shannon and Garryowen, such is the age-old rivalry, but Sean remains one of the most exciting players to play for Shannon, while Neil has become part of the furniture across the city in Dooradoyle.
As well as that, Cronin's cousin Nicole, also a fellow scrum-half - unlike his brothers who both play hooker - is part of the Ireland squad and was one of the few success stories at last year's home World Cup campaign.
Cronin is currently a woodwork and technology teacher in St Munchin's College, where he also works as backs coach with the Junior Cup team, who last month, were crowned Munster champions for the first time in 20 years.
The easy option might have been to stay in a job that he has worked equally hard to get, but he is still young enough to make a name for himself in Munster.
Cronin has spent plenty of time in the set-up through the years, so knows exactly what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
He has been handed an all-too-rare second chance in the professional game - largely as a result of his outstanding performances for Garryowen.
Cronin's route back to the fold is yet another reminder of why it is important not to lose track of the quality of players coming through the AIL.
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