Ronaldson full of western promise
Connacht's latest recruit to big time determined to take chance
WHEN Craig Ronaldson put pen to paper on a professional contract with Connacht last spring, he had the big time in his sights. It just hit him a bit quicker and a bit harder than he expected.
In April, he won an All-Ireland League medal with Lansdowne and last Friday night he was the centre of attention as Connacht went within a whisker of upsetting the big-spending Saracens in Galway.
Not only did his Heineken Cup debut come ahead of schedule, it came as something of a surprise as he had been named on the bench as cover for Dan Parks at the Sportsground.
Registration problems for New Zealand centre James So'oialo meant that he had been on stand-by all week, but in the end the out-half donned the No 12 jersey and was pitched straight into the action. He was out of position, but not out of his depth. Having waited for his chance, the 23-year-old former Kilkenny College captain was determined to take it.
"It was a big step-up from anything I have ever experienced before and I'd be lying if I was saying that I wasn't blowing at certain stages," he admitted.
"That's just it, having less time on the ball, things like that. The collisions and the physicality were a big step-up. I enjoyed it, the experience was a shock to the system, but it was a nice one.
"It was a whirlwind week. I had been in and out of the build-up, but to get a start in the end was very exciting. I was delighted with how it went. The result was disappointing in the end, but it was a great experience.
"James was named to start and there was still an issue over his work permit, so the two of us were switching in and out just in case it wasn't sorted out. There was some issue anyway, but Pat (Lam) said I'd be starting later on.
"I haven't played a huge amount in the centre, if I'm honest. Over the last few years, I've always been a No 10. At Lansdowne I was always a 10, Connacht signed me as a 10.
"I was a bit more nervous because not only was I stepping up, but I was out of position as well."
He handled those nerves well for the 66 minutes of his European debut, especially considering this time last year, Ronaldson was working at Wesley College as a house master, coaching some of the school's teams and taking some PE classes while training in the evening with Lansdowne.
The route to the professional game is becoming less orthodox these days and despite missing out on the Leinster Academy, he always felt that he could make the step-up. His performances with Lansdowne backed up this belief. Ronaldson just needed someone to take a chance.
"I've always thought that. When playing in the AIL and coming up against the pro guys – obviously not the top ones – I've always done quite well and I'd always fancied myself deep down. I've always felt that I had the skill-set and attitude to give it a go and add value," he explained.
"Now that I'm here, there are times when you stand in awe of some of the lads, but once you're among them and train alongside them, it makes you feel that you do belong.
"At the back of my mind, I had wanted to give it one shot. At the end of the season before last I was really close to heading to England and giving it a go so that I'd have no regrets. But I said I'd give it one more go with Lansdowne and it turned out to be a good year with us winning the AIL.
"Had it gone another year or two, I'd have thought twice about it again."
While the Ulster Bank League may be unheralded, it's quality has been proven in a season that has seen Ronaldson, Leinster's Darragh Fanning and Grenoble pair James Hart and Shane O'Leary make strides in the professional game.
The move to full-time rugby is a change, but Connacht's new recruit has enjoyed the step up.
"The lifestyle is a change first of all. Being able to fully commit to training and base your day around that. Back with Lansdowne, I was working during the day, so it is nice to be able to commit to it fully and make it my sole focus.
"The detail that goes into everything is the big difference. The detail in training, with the video work and everything like that. The conditioning side is another step-up.
"With myself and a few others popping out and into the provinces, it has shown that there are players capable of stepping up and that can only be good for the AIL. It shows that the club game can be a proper breeding ground."
Being pitched in last weekend meant that Ronaldson is ahead of schedule this season and he knows his place is not assured by any means – he may even drop to the bench in the team named by Lam today.
He has joined a club in transition, but one that is ambitious enough for him to believe that the westerners want to compete for honours in the years to come. If they are to do so, they will need to back up last week's performance and get wins in places like Parma, where they face Zebre tomorrow.
"There has been a bit of a bedding in period for Pat and the new guys, trying to get used to the new calls and new ideas.
"We haven't really set out specific goals, we're trying to improve the whole time as individuals and as a team.
"We want to get ourselves in a position to be in contention for leagues, but, at the moment, we need to look at ourselves individually first.
"We can't afford the Saracens performance to be a once off where we get up mentally. It (the Zebre game) is another Heineken Cup game, it's away. We have to go out and move it up another level. We can, so it is up to all of the players to do that and step up to the challenge."