In part eight of our series, Des Berry talks to Oliver Jager on going from Leinster Academy rejection to the brink of a New Zealand cap
Oliver Jager had his eye on the clock.
In 2013, the Blackrock College student sat for the last examination of his Leaving Certificate, Technical Graphics, knowing that he had to be out of there an hour before it finished.
He had somewhere better to be – New Zealand.
"I had to do that in order to make it home, pack my stuff and get a lift to the airport. That was it. I was gone," said the man from Naas.
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The tall tight-head was never one to follow the crowd. He was not interested in joining many of his school-mates on a sun holiday to blow off steam in Spain.
There was no spot available in Leinster's Sub Academy and his commitment to rugby was compromised by not quite knowing what he wanted.
"I made trials for the Leinster U20s. I was in and out. I didn't really know if I wanted to do it or not," said Jager.
A conversation between Dublin University Director of Rugby Tony Smeeth and Dutch dad Harm was the spark behind an adventure that has taken Jager to the brink of being an All Black.
Smeeth had mentioned how Trinity players had sometimes taken flight to New Zealand to experience the Crusaders International Academy, designed to support the development of overseas players at it's High-Performance Unit in Christchurch.
Set up in 2008, it is linked to the biggest club brand in world rugby and housed in the same building as the champion Crusaders' next generation of greats.
For the right price, high-level athletes from anywhere on the planet are immersed into a unique rugby environment, living the life of a professional player.
"I landed in Christchurch in late June and stayed for around a month and a half. You live as a professional as such, for a certain amount of time, train with the Crusaders Academy for however long you go there," said the 24-year-old.
"It was bloody cool, for sure. You immerse yourself into the club side of it and the Academy. It was so different to what I was used to.
"They have a relationship with Scotland rugby. In my first year, Finn Russell was there and Adam Ashe was there in my second year.
"Anyway, at the end of it, I had a chat with the head of the course John Haggart. He told me it would be a good idea to come back the next year.
"It was enough for me to think it could end up being something for me."
By this time, his parents Harm and Therese had moved to Abu Dhabi and he joined them there for six months, playing socially for the local Harlequins club.
The second time around, Jager arrived back in Christchurch late February-early March of 2014 as a man on a mission.
"At that point, I was thinking of making the Crusaders Academy. I couldn’t see any other reason for inviting me back."
He immediately returned to Ryan Crotty's New Brighton, the club that has played an anchoring role in making Jager feel at home, far away from home.
"I have been with the club since I’ve been out here," he said.
"They’ve taken real good care of me. That is my club. If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t still be here."
When the time was right, Jager was offered a place in the Academy proper in what was an unusual move.
"As far as I know, I am the only person to go through the HPU and get into the Academy. That is what I’ve been told anyway."
This is reflected in the fact Jager appears on the International Academy's arm of the Crusaders website, sharing his story as a marketing tool to attract direct foreign investment into the HPU.
Jager entered the Academy in 2015, the same year as George Bridge and at the same time that Jack Goodhue was there. Progress was swift.
"The Academy is three years. I spent two there. The first year I was mostly recovering from an ACL reconstruction," he said.
"My second year in the Academy was my first pre-season with Crusaders and Dave Hewett offered me an interim contract, which meant I could be called up to the first team if there was an injury crisis."
Jager was not required for Super Action in 2016 as All Black Owen Franks and Samoa’s Michael Alaalatoa stayed the course.
The 6'4”, 128kilos prop was busy growing his game for Canterbury in the Mitre-10 competition where the coaches were Scott Robertson and Jason Ryan. When they took over the Crusaders, Jager signed a one-year deal.
"My debut was in 2017, coming on against the Reds in Brisbane. That whole week, I was bricking myself," he revealed.
"It dawned on me that I was actually going to play for the Crusaders, one of the biggest, if not the biggest club team in the world. It felt like it was a dream.
"I remember running onto the pitch. I was so nervous, I tripped over one of the camera wires. I just managed to catch my feet.
"I had played Mitre-10. That was fast. This was something different. I came on after 55-60 minutes and I could never catch my breath. I could never find the time. It was the speed that got to me.
"After the game, I was talking to Ben Funnell, the sub hooker at the time.
"I said: 'man, how fast was that?'”
"Eh, it wasn’t that fast at all.
"I just thought, ‘oh s**t, what’s fast?’ Then, when you play other New Zealand teams, you find out what fast is."
There is the speed and there is the ‘rite of passage’ of being absolutely screwed in the scrum, known as ‘getting your wings,’ that every prop has to endure.
"During training, I never really got ‘pinged’ like that. Obviously, everyone has their fair share of knock-backs. But, I never got my wings,” he said.
Then, it happened last year against the Stormers in Cape Town when replacement loose-head Corne Fourie gave Jager the feeling of ‘lift-off,’ driving him three metres into the air.
“Ever since then, I don’t have to worry about getting them. I just have to not let it happen again.”
Ronan O’Gara arrived in Christchurch in 2018 for two seasons and wasted no time in reaching out.
“The first day he came in, he came up to me and knew exactly who I was. I would like to think he was a mentor to me because of the Irish connection.
“I wouldn’t say we were close. But, every two months, we would go for coffee and talk about what I wanted to do in the future.”
The future became the present when Owen Franks moved to The Premiership last year. It cleared the way for Jager and Alaataloa to go one-on-one for the coveted number three shirt.
“I really wanted to gun for it,” he stated
“The whole of pre-season and Mitre-10, no matter how far away the first round of Super Rugby was, it was always there in my mind that the first jersey was still open.”
In the end, the verdict went in favour of Jager to start against Waratahs in the opening round of the 2020 Super Rugby season.
“It was a big deal. It was my fourth year in Super Rugby and my first start. It was a pretty special game for me. I had a chance to prove myself and keep the jersey.
“I started the first three rounds of the season against Waratahs, Chiefs and Blues only to get knocked out in a head clash with our hooker Codie Taylor in the first five minutes of the third round.”
Jager was consumed by making it back as soon as possible, swallowing fish oils and sleeping long hours, missing round four and a bye week.
He was eased back in against the Reds from the bench and started Super Rugby round seven against the Japanese Sunwolves on March 14th.
Then, the coronavirus washed up on New Zealand's shores and that was that.
“It is quite frustrating, what’s going on in the world. Of course, there are bigger things than rugby and you have to understand that.”
Jager has had time to consider his journey, how far he has come to be a starting Crusader, how the next step is the hardest one.
Though he has not ruled out playing for Ireland, understandably, it is not his preferred avenue into international rugby.
"At the moment, I am trying to cement my place at the Crusaders as number one," he cautioned.
"I have never been part of a Super Rugby final or even a semi-final and we were trying to become the first team to win four times in a row this season.
"I have played all my senior footie in New Zealand, been here for nearly seven years now.
"I do feel like this is home. It is the place I want to be and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do think about being an All Black."
Dreaming has turned to thinking. Now, it is just all about believing.