Thursday 22 March 2018

Cronin built for impact as bench men prepare to make mark

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Over the course of the Six Nations, Sean Cronin is likely to make a little piece of history he's not quite sure he wants.

Ronan O'Gara holds the record for the most replacement appearances in Six Nations history with 22, but Cronin is coming up on the rails at a hell of a pace. By week four in Cardiff, the Limerick-born Leinster hooker will have drawn level and by Edinburgh, injury permitting, the mantle should be his.

Even in Joe Schmidt's world where the bench is there for impact and all 23 players are considered part of the team, being a replacement does not sit well with professional athletes.

Yet Cronin has had to adjust to the role and make the best of it. Of his 38 caps, 31 have come as a substitute.

It helps that the 28-year-old is built to make an impact. Blessed with pace that once saw him grace the Limerick Gaelic football minor half-forward line, he combines the blistering speed with a frame built for the professional game.

So, the call comes and man christened 'Nugget' by Leo Cullen for his training approach at the 2011 World Cup, comes on for one of the Irish team's key leaders Rory Best when the game is usually in the melting pot, and any sign of feeling sorry for yourself is put to one side.

Time to perform.

"You're in the game to be a No 1, to be a starter and to be the best in your position, and then you have to buy into other stuff that comes with that," he says.

"I dealt with Joe when he was at Leinster as well and I had to deal with the fact that, yeah, I had to share a lot of game-time - especially the bigger games, I came off the bench. That did benefit me, working with him in terms of being the best I could be when coming off the bench or when starting.

"It is something I had to learn, but it seems to have worked to my benefit that I can come off the bench and make an impact.

"Maybe that's something that has helped me to be selected for squads.

"You can see that games tend to break up as time goes on, even in terms of being fresher when it comes to getting your tackle technique right, your entry into rucks - you're that much fresher and you can really target that type of stuff.

"Look at the decider in Paris last year, I was able to put in a number of dominant tackles and stuff like that - it's not just carrying the ball, it can be having an impact on 'D', getting off the line, talking to the guys around you.

"That's the areas that I'd be looking at, not just ball carrying, it could be the chat, the energy you bring and helping the lads."

That Six Nations decider may not have worked out as well had the bench not done their stuff a week previously against Italy in Dublin.

The occasion may be remembered most for the farewell to Brian O'Driscoll, but the replacements' refusal to relent when the Azzurri were dead and buried ultimately provided the platform to win the tournament on points difference.

Along with Fergus McFadden and Jack McGrath, Cronin crossed for a try at the Aviva Stadium, with the bench contributing 19 points. Ireland eventually won the Championship by 10.

This season, there is a different set of challenges for the players to overcome. Chief amongst them, it seems, is expectation and Cronin revealed that the coaches have addressed the issue head-on.


One by one, English pundits like Lawrence Dallaglio, Matt Dawson, Brian Moore, plus a host of former Ireland players have tipped Schmidt's side for a first successful defence of their title since 1949, with the bookies installing the champions as pre-tournament favourites.

Despite more than a decade of improvement and success on a European stage, Cronin concedes that expectation still doesn't sit comfortably on Ireland's shoulders.

"There's a favourites tag being put on us a small bit and that has us on high alert," the Leinster hooker admits.

"It is a different beast when it comes to international rugby, because it is tiny percentages that make the difference.

"Traditionally, have Ireland teams generally dealt with that favourites tag? I don't think so.

"We're better when we're the underdogs, it gives a bit of bite to us. The coaches have been ramming it down our throats the last couple of weeks that we're not the favourites, it's going to be anyone's Championship and that tag won't help us in any way."

As for the record he is inadvertently chasing?

"It could be a notorious stat to have," he smiles, "but I'll take it."

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