Friday 15 December 2017

Niland's net gains inspire old pal Reddan

Ireland scrum-half Eoin Reddan and Conor Niland's paths may have diverged since their childhood but they both respect the success they've had .
Ireland scrum-half Eoin Reddan and Conor Niland's paths may have diverged since their childhood but they both respect the success they've had .
David Kelly

David Kelly

It was only when he was sat down to dinner with his colleagues late on Sunday night that it struck him just how his old friend Conor Niland might be feeling.

Earlier he had sat in the stands at Fitzwilliam Tennis Club to watch his boyhood pal from Ballycummin in Limerick subside in Ireland's Davis Cup challenge against Luxembourg's Gilles Muller.

Reddan knows the bitter taste of defeat but at least he has had the sanctuary of group therapy from which to relieve the pain. Niland was forced to carry the burden alone.

"He's always applied himself hard to the sport," says Ireland's scrum-half. "Especially in a sport like tennis where there's no-one telling him how great he is, it's all about personal achievement and knowing yourself.

"Being No 135 in the world is hard for most people to understand how good that is -- in rugby terms it's probably the equivalent of winning the Heineken Cup. It's huge, in an individual sport like that and with the level of history Ireland would have in it; it's a great credit to him and his family that he's done so well.

"Mentally he's proven to be very strong; he's been playing the game a long time and he's consistently improving. The game probably doesn't lend itself to that -- guys come in and have a few good years and disappear again but he's consistently improved.

"The mental side of rugby is big too -- are you getting picked or not picked, the pressure situations in a game. But the tennis court can be a lonely place, I'd say, and he's obviously done very well on that front."

It made Reddan appreciate even more the camaraderie offered on and off the rugby field, the constant presence of reassuring words and emotions applied as a soothing balm for all possible physical and mental wounds.

"I wouldn't envy it at all," Reddan answers when asked to compare the pursuits of the individual and team athlete. "I've an unbelievable respect for them, I think it's incredibly hard.

"In good times you don't have anyone to share it with and in bad times it's even more important, you don't have anyone, you're just looking at yourself in the mirror. It's a very hard job.

"In training, here, different people every day are buzzing and moving things on so people get on the same page pretty quickly.

"But if you don't have that around you it's up to yourself to get going every single day and that can be a long time when you think over 10 years how many days like that you'll have.

"I've massive respect for him. He's still striving and gotten great results and performances from age 25 on. If you're in that age bracket and think you can improve, it's great to see that happening as it shows it can be done. So you can keep improving no matter what age you are in rugby."

Reddan, now 30, is a case in point. A Heineken Cup winner with Wasps in 2007, he missed Ireland's Grand Slam success in Cardiff two years ago as he still struggled to establish himself in the international set-up.

"I've mixed emotions going to Cardiff this weekend, if I am being brutally honest. Watching the lads lifting a Grand Slam, I was delighted because I had so many of my friends playing and I was delighted for Irish rugby.


"But at the same time, I was on a bus home after getting beaten by Worcester away for Wasps I think, which was not quite as glamorous a fixture.

"I think that day was great for Irish rugby and very positive and something for us all to aim for, especially the people not involved. It makes you want to push on and be part and contribute your own little bit.

"I draw motivation from that and a sense of satisfaction that Ireland actually did that, but also motivation to get back in and add something positive that you can be proud of yourself."

As well as offering a zip to Ireland's play on the field, Reddan offers a refreshing perspective off it. You would never see him emulating some of his colleagues' self-pitying attitudes to criticisms proffered by press or supporters.

There are no expectations once he pulls the Ireland jersey over his head.

"It is hard but if you compare it say to the hurt in a losing dressing-room, it is minuscule, you know, it does not really matter what is said," he avers.

"People might get exasperated, but people are entitled to their opinions.

"If you are relying on good words from the media to play well, that is not always going to happen. If you're relying on bad words to help you -- 'we're going to show them' -- that is not going to happen either.

"It is about managing our own stuff and not getting too caught up in all that."

Hence the reaction to Ireland's stuttering performances doesn't surprise him -- particularly among journalists who, if some Irish players are to be believed, overly influence what supporters are thinking.

"No, I think every editor in the country has been telling them "make sure you ask about penalties" because everyone is asking about penalties! You know, if you look at the facts, people have to ask about them."

Reddan scored his first try in 27 appearances last time out, an achievement in which he dutifully wallowed.

"It wouldn't be like me really but I think growing up you always want that!" It recalled the days of carefree sport with his good mate.

"Conor played a bit of rugby and we played a bit of soccer together as well, but you could always hear the bang of a ball from the other side of the wall. We were probably lobbing rugby balls into his house and he was hitting tennis balls into ours."

Their paths have diverged since, but their footsteps possess the same firm imprint of the devoted athlete.

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