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Irishman Leader's path leads him into USA's Major League Rugby

The former Connacht back has signed a two-year contract with the San Diego Legion.

THE UNITED STATES has been a home away from home for so many Irish people over the years and with the ambitious Major League Rugby launching in 2018, we may see more rugby players becoming part of the diaspora in the near future.

The first season of Major League Rugby [MLR] will get underway in April and run until the end of June, with seven teams taking part in the cities of Austin, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Seattle, Glendale, New Orleans and Houston.

Among the Irishmen involved is former Connacht back Tadhg Leader, who has signed for the San Diego Legion on a two-year contract.

Tadhg Leader

It marks a return to professional rugby for the Galway man, who has been playing, coaching and studying in the States for the past two and a half years.

After last season’s failed PRO Rugby competition, MLR feels like a far more realistic shot at getting a sustainable professional rugby league up and running in the States – with the CBS sports network set to screen 13 games live on TV.

“I was at home over Christmas and everyone was just so curious about what they refer to as this ‘sleeping giant’ – rugby in the States,” says Leader. “They were asking, ‘When are things going to really kick off over there?’ I’m certainly very excited about this.”

Leader’s route into Major League Rugby has been unique. He is the older brother of current Connacht wing/fullback Darragh, while the eldest brother of three, Greg, also played for the province at underage levels.

With their father, Noel, having played for and been president of Galwegians RFC and their mother, Breda, being Rowing Ireland’s secretary, sport was always ingrained in the Leader family. Rugby, though, was easily the most popular.

“The fact that we were all so close in age, from day one we were tackling each other on our knees,” says Leader. ”We have a big garden at home and we used to spend quite a bit of time there, we’d always be out having kicking competitions.”

A talented centre or out-half with The Bish, Leader moved to Roscrea for his final two years of school, the decision mainly being based around rugby, and though the Leinster U19s came calling for him, he stayed loyal to Connacht.

Current senior assistant coach Nigel Carolan was a big influence on Leader, and 2011 saw the Galway man enter Connacht’s academy at the same time as Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion.

Initially, progress was swift as Leader was called into the senior squad on a full-time basis, but injuries ruined the final stages of his time with Connacht.

“My first year and a half, I loved it. I was developing and things were going well” says the 25-year-old. “I dealt with Nigel from the age of 15 and he was always brilliant to me.

Tadhg Leader and JJ Hanrahan

“But just on the back end, I kept getting injured – an ankle injury and then a serious shoulder injury that eventually required reconstruction. At the end, to be honest, I was quite happy to get out of Connacht and get out of Ireland.”

Leader lost his grá for rugby in that injury-ridden period and though he says Connacht were brilliant in helping out with sports psychology and whatever else they could, he simply needed a fresh start.

He asked to be released early from his contract and Connacht agreed. The Boston Irish Wolfhounds club had been in touch from the US asking if Leader would come over to play and coach, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“There was no real pressure, everyone was there for the sake of enjoying the game and it was brilliant for me. I kinda fell back in love with the game over that three months.”

With his body and mind refreshed, Leader still hoped to pursue professional rugby. He spoke to a handful of Championship clubs in England, before getting an offer from Italian club Badia.

But the old injuries returned, with Leader’s left shoulder causing severe issues when he began playing in the Rovigo region of Italy.

“I was there for two months but my shoulder was dislocating so easily. We had a swimming pool in the house and I’d go for a swim and it would just pop out. It was at that point that the writing was on the wall.”

While the rugby side of the move to Italy barely got going, Leader feels even a brief experience of living in a country where he couldn’t speak the language helped him to “mature a lot over a short period.”

Having finally had a shoulder reconstruction after returning to Ireland, Leader soon received a scholarship offer from Lindenwood University in the US and again he accepted the chance willingly.

Having shifted his life once again, this time to Missouri, Leader was pleasantly shocked at the quality of the rugby set-up at Lindenwood, with their programme including GPS monitoring, the use of drones to record training sessions, and in-depth analysis.

But then another setback. Two games in with Lindenwood, he was ‘flagged’ to USA Rugby and after a lengthy process, the governing body deemed that Leader was ineligible to play for the university, having been a professional player so recently.

Tadhg Leader

Fortunately, Leader’s scholarship was not withdrawn and the Galway man found a role as a player/coach with a nearby club.

He took over the St. Louis Royals and, with an intense focus on skills, guided them to their first national championship in 10 years. Leader is quick to point out that his time at Connacht provided him with some ideal role models in coaching.

His final season with Connacht overlapped with Pat Lam’s first in the western province, while Carolan was an excellent mentor too.

“A tonne of what I do as a coach, I learned from Pat and Nigel and Dave Ellis,” says Leader. “Essentially, it’s doing the basics well at speed and under pressure.

“In St. Louis, we just thought if everyone had the ability to pull a pass five or ten yards and under pressure, that we could win at that level.”

In early 2017, Leader co-founded Rugby Consulting USA, a company that provides bespoke coaching to players of all levels and has taken him to almost every corner of the States, including Alaska.

“That was something I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do. It was nice to see that side of the world where you literally have bears on the field and you have to just slowly move away!”

All the while, Leader has been studying for a degree in Sports Management at Lindenwood, admitting that he has turned into something of a “swot” after finding himself fascinated by the subject.

It has also helped his recent foray into the world of agency, with Leader now employed as chief operations officer of the Digidust Sport‘s US branch.

Leader’s involvement came about after he helped an ambitious young American player to find pro playing opportunities in Europe, leading to discussions with Digidust, who represent players like Morné Steyn, Gurthrö Steenkamp and Christopher Tolofua.

Aware of the potential for growth in US rugby and feeling that Leader “had some clue about what’s going on,” Digidust offered him a job in the newly-created position last summer.

Leader has since helped to secure promising American prop David Ainu’u an academy contract with Toulouse, while he played a key role in getting Irishmen Ciaran Gaffney and Rory Parata into Pro14 club Zebre.

Ciaran Gaffney

With rugby changing rapidly in terms of player wages and movement between clubs, Leader stresses that having a good agent is crucial for players.

“The big thing I learned is that there’s a lot of agents out there where if you’re not a premier player, the agents just show up around contract renewal time or when you’re looking for a new club.

“But the big thing that Digidust preach, and something I agree with, is taking care of the player, being in constant contact with the guys all year. There’s so much transfer activity now that I think agents are a necessity, just so guys know their market value and, secondly, for their connections.”

Gaffney is a good example, a player who was heading back to Ireland to play club rugby after a stint in New Zealand until Leader asked if he could shop around for his old team-mate, eventually leading to the Gaffney signing for Zebre.

While Leader’s own playing involvement with the MLR will mean he can’t play a direct role in placing players with clubs in the US, he says this new market has attracted heavy interest from Ireland.

“Already, there has been a huge amount of guys with Pro14 and even European experience reaching out and seeing if they can get a gig out here,” he says. “From a player’s standpoint, a lot of guys would like to experience rugby out here.

“The league will grow to 10 teams next year so that means more opportunities. There’s definitely a massive interest level from the players and the teams want high-level players. I anticipate a lot of Irish players coming across to Major League Rugby in the next few years.”

While no one will be breaking world records for wages in the first few seasons of MLR, Leader points out that players in the US can earn as much as a development contract back in Ireland in a single season.

Leader says he will have to take a slight step back in his US-related duties with Digidust, but having loved his experience so far he will continue his work in agency alongside playing.

“I won’t be as hands-on on a day-to-day basis with the American market, but I’ve been talking to quite a few guys in Leinster and Connacht and other places who are coming off contract so I will still be playing a role there because I will have time.”

Coaching will take a back seat for now – though he will continue to work at high school level – with Leader keen to ensure his return to playing professional rugby is a success.

SD

San Diego will be training at the world-class EXOS facility, where the NFL’s leading stars train during their off-season. IRFU director of athletic performance and science, Nick Winkelman, previously worked for the EXOS organisation.

With a strong rugby community existing in San Diego, the outlook is enthusiastic and Leader is hopeful of exceeding his previous playing heights after pre-season gets him back into peak condition.

Interestingly, he will qualify to play rugby for the US in August, having completed three years of residency, and having seen Dublin native AJ MacGinty go on to star for the States, Leader had a similar idea when joining Lindenwood back in 2015.

“Initially when I came over, it was definitely something I was considering and I’ve talked to some of the guys involved in USA Rugby and they’ve been extremely helpful and encouraging.

“The last two years, the fact that I haven’t been able to play serious rugby, that slipped away in terms of priorities as I got involved in the agency side of things. But now getting back playing, it’s definitely in the back of my mind.

“I’m aware that there is some potential for that but I’m realistic as well – I have to just get back playing a decent level of rugby before anything like that.”

So for now, it’s head down and focus on San Diego. Leader is in a happy place and he reflects on his call to get out of Ireland as “probably the best decision I’ve ever made.” Indeed, he believes that more Irish players should be looking to broaden their horizons.

“Back home, with fringe players or academy guys, they just see their home province and it’s either make it there or just step away and play AIL,” says Leader.

“But there are so many guys who are good players and they don’t really explore other possibilities. I don’t know whether it’s a case of not having the balls to do it or they don’t know how to go about it, but I think a lot of guys are just content to be a fringe player who might play four games a year at best.

“Since I’ve done it, I’ve realised that more guys should be looking at other possibilities. I definitely believe that a lot more people could be getting out.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Murray Kinsella

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