Thursday 21 November 2019

Teacher thriving in the school of hard knocks

Versatile back revels in the driving seat after working hard to get break in professional ranks

Craig Ronaldson is targetting a successful end to the season with Connacht
Craig Ronaldson is targetting a successful end to the season with Connacht

Daragh Small

Like all elite professionals Connacht out-half Craig Ronaldson has supreme levels of self-belief. It's what got him through a difficult season last term when injuries dogged his first year at the Sportsground, and he is learning to cope with the pitfalls that come with playing rugby at this level.

The 25-year old from Kildare was always destined to play rugby at a high standard; his grandfather Bill Tector starred for Ireland in the 1950s and his father Tim went on to play for the Leinster juniors.

Craig always had a keen interest in the game and his journey has taken him from Naas RFC to Kilkenny College, Lansdowne to the Ireland Clubs side and now he is playing a pivotal role in Connacht's push for Champions Cup rugby.

"I came to the Sportsground initially on just a one-year contract to just see how I got on from there. I managed to get a few games at the start of the season and then just before Christmas in my first year I signed a two-year contract," he says.

"I was pretty delighted about that - to stay on and get that bit more security going forward was great for me as a person but also a player.

"Knowing that they want you involved in the set-up and that the coaches back you to a certain degree is great for your confidence.

"It was great as well to be getting signed up so quickly at the time. So that was very pleasing, especially when you know they are building a good squad at the moment it is exciting going forward."

Ronaldson has made 30 appearances and scored two tries in his two seasons at the Sportsground and he is on the brink of crossing the 100-point mark in the Pro12.

He came to Connacht following some exhilarating displays for Lansdowne in the All-Ireland League - they won Division 1A in canter in 2013, and he moved at the end of the season.

Niall Woods was once again the main man involved in discussions between Connacht and the UCD graduate. Woods was also Connacht winger Matt Healy's agent when he went west after being noticed playing for Lansdowne.

Ronaldson wanted to stay in Ireland so for him, Connacht was the perfect fit.

While at Lansdowne, Ronaldson worked at Wesley College as a housemaster and a PE teacher but he upped sticks and moved to Galway where he moved in with Peter Reilly and Stephen MacAuley.

Goal

"I was playing with Lansdowne in the AIL but at the back of mind my goal was to get a professional club somewhere and at the time I was looking at a few places," he says.

"I just got in touch through my agent Niall and I was told that they were interested. I was chatting to a few people about it - a few things led to another and I was pretty keen on what they had to say and where they seemed to be going.

"I was more than happy to come down and join them.

"But it was another step up in my career. It was my first time in a professional set-up when I came down to Galway that first summer.

"I didn't really know what to expect and I was quite nervous at the beginning. The pre-season was definitely a step up in intensity from what I had experienced before, just from the aspect of it being so full on and having to train every day. I loved it, though, and it was nice to be able to commit to it fully, not having to worry about going to work in the evenings and other things to do with college. It was nice to be able to connect fully to it."

Ronaldson had joined Lansdowne when he finished school in Kilkenny College. Everything was planned out from the time he filled out his CEO, with Sports Management in UCD the next step.

"I wanted to pursue and see how far I could go with the rugby from a young age," he explains. "I had my college choices down and I was going to Dublin and a few of my choices were based around how best I could get on that rugby path.

"I did Sports Management in UCD and I went and played for Lansdowne. I thought that was the best club at the time and they would give me the best opportunity to push on and make a living out of it."

He got his wish eventually and at 25 he is still very young in a position where experience is crucial to your development.

Out-half is his preferred option but he has also featured for Connacht at centre - his size means he is equally adept in midfield.

"I have had a few injuries here and there. It has been frustrating at times, you are trying to get a run of games under your belt but you might get an injury and it sets you back a bit," he says.

"But that is all part of being a better professional as well - how you deal with that. I wasn't great in dealing with it in my first year and I probably let it get on top of me a small bit.

"It is a learning curve as you go along, how best to manage your body and how to deal with it going forward.

"It is all about trying to stay fit and trying to get yourself into that squad and cement a place in the team.

"It is quite tough at the moment - the competition for places is a lot stronger than before.

"I have played a lot of my life wearing the No 10 jersey so that is a bit more familiar.

"But at the same time I am happy to play anywhere once I am in the team and once I can help out the team and that's the only way I will improve as a player."

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