This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
OK
Dublin: 23 °C Tuesday 19 June, 2018
Advertisement

Dundalk man McElroy excels with Saracens after U20s World Cup dream was shattered

The 20-year-old hooker is thriving in his first season with the Premiership giants.

HAVING FOUGHT HARD every step of the way from Dundalk to the Ireland U20 squad, Tadgh McElroy was on the verge of fulfilling a dream and going to the World Cup to wear the green jersey with pride last year.

But at the very last moment, his dream was snatched away.

The dynamic hooker hadn’t finalised his plans for after the 2017 World Rugby U20 Championship in Georgia and the IRFU gave him an ultimatum.

inpho_01175218 McElroy had a superb U20 Six Nations last year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Reigning Europen and Premiership champions Saracens had made an offer to McElroy, but the IRFU wanted him to sign for Connacht – his home province Leinster having opted for another player to take the hooker spot in their academy set-up.

“It was horrible,” says McElroy, who is now part of Saracens’ academy and impressing for the English side. “Basically, there were rumours that I had signed for Saracens, but I hadn’t signed for anybody. I hadn’t signed a thing.

“I went to the airport to meet the squad and I was told I had to sign for Connacht that day or I was not getting on the plane.

“I rang my agent and he told me not to make a decision, ‘We will have a chat, this is crazy.’ I said I totally agreed and that my head was in a shambles and I couldn’t make a decision.

“They said, ‘If you don’t sign today, you ain’t coming.’ I told them I really wanted to go, had trained hard and was in a good place, but they said, ‘We’re only taking players that will be playing in Ireland.’

“I told them I wasn’t turning my back on anyone, I just wanted to go and enjoy the campaign and do my best before coming back and making my decision. They said, ‘You’ve already signed for Saracens,’ but I just said I hadn’t signed a thing.

“They told me I wasn’t coming. I said, ‘If that’s your decision, it’s very immature, but I’ve got to respect your decision.’ I went home. It was crazy. I was upset and annoyed. I wanted to be out there with the boys.”

It was a very difficult experience for a young man who had played for Ireland at U18 and U19 levels before excelling in last year’s U20 Six Nations, scoring three tries as he started all five games.

Making it even more difficult for McElroy were false rumours that he was opting out of playing for Ireland because he wanted to play for England instead – qualifying for them through his London-born grandmother.

“There were a lot of lies going around, a lot of stuff that wasn’t true,” says the Dundalk man.

McElroy McElroy in Saracens colours. Source: Saracens

“I was there to go and play for Ireland, but I wasn’t picked to go at the end. There’s only so much you can do. My bag was packed and I was ready to go.

“It was only the following week that I said to my agent that I’d sign for Saracens. What had happened put the final nail in the coffin.”

Ireland’s loss has certainly been Saracens’ gain, with McElroy quickly settling into the club and making his first-team debut in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, with a maiden start against Exeter at the beginning of this month following two substitute appearances.

The 20-year-old has been extremely close to Sarries’ Premiership matchday squads too, acting as their 24th man a handful of times. The club has already offered him a one-year contract extension to his academy deal and life is good for McElroy.

“I couldn’t go to any other club where I have people like Jamie George, Christopher Tolofua and Schalk Brits giving me tips, going through my analysis with me, telling me what I need to focus on,” says McElroy.

“I can’t get that anywhere else and I’m extremely lucky to be here with some of the best players in the world.”

Dundalk RFC is where it all started for McElroy at the age of eight, his father Stanley – a major influence on his career – having previously played for the club.

Ireland U18 Clubs coach Wayne Mitchell, who now works with the IRFU’s Exiles branch, brought McElroy to a tournament in France in 2014 and McElroy was back again a year later as the U18s travelled to Gloucester for the Three Union Festival.

A small handful of players from that group have gone into provincial academies, including Liam Coombes and Ciarán Frawley, but McElroy felt he always had to work harder coming out of the youths game, rather than the schools system.

“I’m proud as punch to be from Dundalk and I’ll always be a Dundalk player,” says McElroy of his hometown club. “I’ve never played for Dundalk’s senior team but someday I will, that’s a goal of mine to go back and do it, they helped me so much.

Jamie George dejected McElroy is learning huge amounts from Jamie George. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

When McElroy finished school, he was hoping for a move to a higher level in the club game and although it was heartbreaking to leave Dundalk, he was “blown away” when Mike Ruddock called him with an offer to join Lansdowne FC.

“Getting tips from Mike, playing in the AIL and training with the first team in Lansdowne got me physically ready for the Ireland U19s season because you’re playing against men rather than underage rugby.”

2017 brought McElroy into the national U20 team set-up under Nigel Carolan and he was one of the most impressive Irish players during last year’s Six Nations campaign.

And yet, McElroy says he feels he could have offered more.

McElroy had been part of Leinster’s sub-academy at the start of the season but had what he describes as a “misunderstanding” with one of the S&C coaches, which saw him leave the set-up.

“I loved the Six Nations, I loved every minute with the boys. But I didn’t feel like I hit my full potential. A lot of people don’t know this, but I wasn’t training with Leinster for the two months before that, I was just training with Lansdowne and doing my bit at home.”

He pays tribute to Ruddock, Lansdowne and his father for helping him to be in shape for the U20s even without provincial involvement.

“My Dad does a huge, huge amount that no one sees, ” says McElroy. “He does a lot to keep me in shape, getting my diet right. He doesn’t get enough credit because he’s been big in all of this.”

Still, a fine Six Nations campaign had McElroy in good stead for the U20 World Cup, but he wasn’t offered a chance to return to the Leinster set-up as they opted to bring his fellow U20 international Ronan Kelleher into their academy system.

McElroy says there were “no bridges burned” when he left the sub-academy and he doesn’t hold any ill feeling towards his native province at all.

Mark McCall arrives for the game McElroy describes Mark McCall as 'very professional'. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

His agent at Navy Blue instead presented him with offers from Saracens and Connacht’s academies and when the IRFU had left him in a difficult position, he took a few more days before deciding that his future lay with the back-to-back Champions Cup winners.

The Saracens academy train full-time with Mark McCall’s senior team, meaning McElroy is learning from many of the very best players in the world on a daily basis.

“We train with the first team week in, week out,” explains McElroy. “We do units together, have breakfast and lunch together and the only thing we don’t do all together is the gym because there are is large numbers of guys, so we’re split into groups.”

Saracens place a huge emphasis on the person as well as the player, and their ‘personal development programme’ has been a contributing factor in creating a very happy squad culture under McCall.

For McElroy, his off-field development has involved studying to be a gym instructor through an online Setanta College course.

“Saracens pride themselves on being like a family and you really do feel part of that atmosphere. Sarries makes you a better person on and off the field. They’ve got me into doing my uni work.

“Anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t be big into uni or going to uni, but now I’m loving it and I’m passing all my grades and keeping up to date with that, as well as getting my opportunities with rugby.”

In terms of the rugby, McElroy is being pushed to improve every day. The ‘A’ League is his “bread and butter” and he has even played in the Saracens Storm’s back row when they have had injuries there, impressing with big carrying and tackling workloads.

“Coming over, I was expecting high standards but over here 100% is not good enough,” says the hooker. “Saracens talk about the next 5% and they judge themselves on that extra 5%. We say that when it’s too hard for the opposition, it’s just right for us.

“The standard in training is through the roof. I’ve seen a week go by and literally two balls be dropped - it’s counted.

Tadgh McElroy McElroy wants to play senior international rugby. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s crazy and the guys work really hard but off the field, the big guys like Will Skelton, Liam Williams, Jamie George – they’re all down to earth and they like helping the academy guys out.”

Having already exceeding his expectations for his first season with Sarries by featuring in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, McElroy is hoping to continue his upward trajectory and, while remaining realistic, he is targeting a Premiership debut sooner rather than later.

McElroy says he hasn’t heard from the IRFU since the debacle before the U20s trip to Georgia and though he is Dundalk through and through, he isn’t against the idea of playing for his grandmother’s country of birth if he is not wanted by Ireland.

“A lot of people were talking about England last year because my mam’s mam is English. At the end of the day, if Ireland don’t want to pick me and another country does, I want to play at the highest level I can.

“To be honest, what happened just put fire in my belly to train harder. I’m lucky to have come out the other side and I want to prove a few people wrong.”

The42 is on Instagram! Tap the button below on your phone to follow us!

From delivering pizzas to delivering medals: Tadhg Beirne’s momentum has been hard-won

Ireland are firm favourites but Schmidt warns of new Welsh strengths

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article
  •  

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next:

COMMENTS (32)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

Leave a commentcancel