Friday 24 January 2020

Time outside 'bubble' gives Nagle a second shot

From Cambridge to Borneo, Leinster lock has taken the road less travelled in life and rugby

Leinster's Ian Nagle:
Leinster's Ian Nagle: "Rugby is an unbelievable environment and I’m very fortunate to be involved in it." Picture: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

'Each station should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a centre for trade of course but also for humanising, improving, instructing.'

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Just as the stream navigates around the rock, not over it, Ian Nagle hasn't always chosen the most direct route as a professional rugby player.

Earlier this year, when four flights, a four-hour jeep ride and a two-hour river boat journey took him the some 13,000 or so miles into the deepest heart of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, he had travelled as far away from a rugby life as possible but, somehow, it already seemed as if he was on his way home.

Deep in the heart of nowhere, this Buttevant boy found himself all at once nowhere and somewhere. As part of a Cambridge MBA, Nagle was in Borneo.

"It was an eye-opener," he recalls of a trip designed to help honey producers. "We were greeted by the whole village on a river bank. The last group had visited there six years ago.

"So a six foot seven inch white fellah stood out. The entire village would follow me around as I walked."

It seems like the scene from Apocalypse Now, the movie of Conrad's novel, when Captain Willard tentatively effects his fateful meeting with Kurtz.

With crude plastic bags on their heads, locals forage honey within the dark, flooded forest; smoking bee hives with twigs before collecting their €17 per kilo goods; Nagle's group were trying to support more productive and profitable benefits for the community.

A bit like Dragon's Den in reverse; except here roamed real dragons - the Komodo - as well as pygmy elephants and tree kangaroos.

"The natives didn't treat us with any suspicion. Having said that, I felt bad because they're as happy and productive a people I have ever seen in my life…"

There was a time when Nagle felt like that.

Long mapped as the heir apparent by his peers to Paul O'Connell in Munster, he soared to national recognition with a man of the match display against Australia six years ago.

Injuries would prove his scourge. Poignantly, Nagle remembers having dinner with the late Anthony Foley when it seemed clear to him that his career paths were diverging in the woods.

"Everyone supported me, Axel was great. I explained the likelihood of someone like me getting in was quite slim. He said if I got it, I should 100pc go for it. He was selfless in his advice. And he always said the door would be open for me at Munster. Strange to think that was the last time I spoke with him really."

And so Nagle swapped the gym for the library; Cambridge beckoned and rugby took a back seat. In the first year, the only time he held a rugby ball was a five-a-side beach tournament on the Copacabana. As you do.

"I always had a view to go back to rugby but I accepted the fact that I might never play professionally again. I knew I hadn't set the world alight in the last three years and I knew why people might not want to give me another chance."

But they did; first, Newcastle, then London Irish as he engaged his agent Frankie Sheahan to begin tiptoeing back into his old life.

The sabbatical had energised him, mentally and physically; rugby would do well to heed this life lesson as so many of its players continue to burn out their bodies and souls at too young an age.

"It was nice to step outside the bubble. Rugby is an unbelievable environment and I'm very fortunate to be involved in it. At least I know now that after rugby, there are loads of exciting things that I can do. It's a good perspective to have.

"I've seen the benefits. I'm hoping it can add longevity to the end of my career, I can get the two years at the end. I turned 28 last week which seems really old in rugby terms but I feel like a 23-year-old the way I have this fresh start.

"I knew I wasn't a million miles off in terms of skill level and the pace of the game. Maybe that's an arrogant thing for me to say but I would have always backed my ability if I were able to get a run of games.

"I know now I'm a bit rusty and I need to do more work to get my fitness and strength levels up to where they can be. Hopefully I can do that quickly with Leinster, I owe them a huge debt."

To some, this is the second coming of Ian Nagle. He feels like he is just beginning.

* 16,500 tickets have been sold for Leinster v Connacht in the RDS this evening and are still available at the gate or

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