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'It's a team any Irish boy would want to play for. I ended up playing against them'

Oli Jager had an impressive outing against the Lions on Saturday and is hungry for more.

Murray Kinsella reports from Auckland

WHILE OLI JAGER didn’t get the fairytale ending to what he calls “the greatest honour I’ve had so far in my career” on Saturday night in Whangarei, he will never forget the experience.

The Naas man grew up dreaming about playing for Ireland and the Lions after he discovered his love for rugby in Newbridge College and then Blackrock College.

Oliver Jager is tackled by Joe Marler Jager played for three quarters of the game against the Lions. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

But on Saturday, the 21-year-old tighthead achieved something truly unique by playing against the Lions for the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, four years after first leaving Ireland to play in Christchurch.

“I still remember the ’09 Lions in South Africa, I was gutted when we lost it and when we won it in Australia I was absolutely stoked about it,” said Jager after his impressive 60-minute display against the Lions at Toll Stadium.

“Yeah, it was always a team I wanted to play for. That’s a team any Irish boy would want to play for, but circumstances happened and I ended up playing against them, which is probably better to be honest! Not many people have done that.”

Jager is a member of the table-topping Crusaders’ Super Rugby squad these days and has already earned three caps off the bench for the famous Kiwi franchise, who are very excited about his potential.

He won a Mitre 10 Cup with Canterbury last year too, but Saturday “was absolutely the best match of my career so far.”

A former Ireland Schools international who won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup with Blackrock in 2013, Jager didn’t get an academy offer from Leinster after leaving school so he decided to head for New Zealand.

He joined the Crusaders’ International High Performance Unit on an initial month-long visit, impressed there and hasn’t looked back since.

“When I first came over here I wasn’t expecting to get this far at all,” said Jager. “I came over for a month to play a wee bit of rugby over here and just experience it as such, but one thing led to another. I came back and got academy, got Mitre 10 and then Crusaders and now I’m playing against the Lions.

“I didn’t expect to get this far, but I’m bloody happy I did.”

Jager Jager won the Mitre 10 Cup last year.

Jager’s family flew to New Zealand last weekend to watch him on his big day against the Lions, and the prop says they were “stoked about it,” even if the Barbarians couldn’t quite claim a famous scalp of Warren Gatland’s side.

The tighthead had a fine game on Saturday, holding his own against Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola at scrum time, while also contributing around the pitch. There were two knock-ons but it was impressive stuff overall from the former shot-putter.

“I’d like to think I did [hold my own], it was a tough old match,” he said. “There was a couple of times I could have done a wee bit better, but I’m still young and still learning, so every bit helps to be honest.”

Jager couldn’t be in a better environment than Scott Robertson’s Crusaders set-up as he continues to learn, and his exposure to Super Rugby this year has accelerated his development even further.

“It helps hugely, because I’m scrummaging against the likes of Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody and Tim Perry week-in, week-out, along with Codie Taylor and Ben Funnell. You learn so much off them, you really do.”

Jager could potentially play against the Lions for a second time on Saturday, as Robertson’s men host Gatland’s side in Christchurch, although he has been behind All Black Owen Franks and Michael Alaalatoa in the tighthead pecking order this season.

“I’d be absolutely stoked to get another game against them, another crack. We’ll see how things go, hopefully I’ll be named but we’ll see,” said Jager

His ongoing progress in New Zealand means the IRFU have been tracking Jager’s progress but so far there has been no move to bring him back to Ireland.

The former Naas RFC front row’s current Crusaders contract expires at the end of this season, but Jager says he has been speaking to the franchise about extending.

inpho_01217058 The Barbarians came close to a huge scalp. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

“Look, we’ll see,” said Jager when asked if he would consider a move back to Ireland at some stage. “I’m out of contract at the end of this season, but we’re working on a new one at the moment. Nothing’s been confirmed yet.

“It’s literally gone day-by-day, now it’s going year-by-year and hopefully the next few years will go every two, three years and that’s just the way rugby is – you never really know where you’re going to end up.”

Jager is happy in New Zealand for now, and appreciative of the opportunities he is getting as a young tighthead. So far, he has is grasping them impressively.

“They like to chuck you in the deep end over here, that’s for sure. To be honest, that’s when you learn the most. I’ve just had a wonderful season so far, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and I just want it to keep going.”

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Murray Kinsella

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