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'I will cherish being able to play with guys I had looked up to for a long time'

22-year-old Irish wing Angus Kernohan is now playing with Ealing in the English Championship.

Kernohan in action for Ulster in 2019.
Kernohan in action for Ulster in 2019.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

IF THE ENFORCED break from professional rugby in Ireland last year felt interminable, spare a thought for what players in the English Championship went through.

After multiple delays and months of uncertainty, England’s second tier finally got its 2020/21 season underway last weekend, a full year after Covid-19 first forced the league to shut down.

Some clubs have gone part-time during the long wait and Saracens have dropped down from the Premiership – they were rocked by Cornish Pirates last weekend – but the Championship is back underway with a truncated 11-round season followed by a two-legged final to decide who gets promoted.

Ealing Trailfinders, favourites to make the final along with Saracens, got their campaign underway with a 52-3 win over Nottingham that featured a try on debut for Irish wing Angus Kernohan, who signed for the London club on a two-season deal after leaving Ulster last year.

Having arrived in Ealing last summer, Kernohan joined his team-mates for long months of pre-season training during which they were told to be “prepared for anything at any time.” Eventually, the club organised its own games against Newcastle and Saracens before hosting the Trailfinders Challenge Cup in January and February.

“After the endless pre-season without a goal, that all made it easier to focus,” says Kernohan, who starts on the right wing again for Ealing today against Ampthill.

London obviously isn’t quite its usual self at present, but the 22-year-old Irishman has settled in well and is enjoying this fresh chapter in his young career after being released by Ulster at the end of the 2019/20 season. 

“It was tough,” says Kernohan. “It’s the club I grew up supporting and really loved playing for.”

angus-kernohan-and-scott-penny-celebrate Kernohan celebrates an U20 Grand Slam with Scott Penny in 2019. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The depth in Ulster’s back three meant they couldn’t hang onto everyone and when Kernohan was told he wouldn’t be getting a new deal, he took around a week to consider whether he wanted to keep playing pro rugby.

Feeling he still had plenty to offer, Kernohan and his agent – former Ulster out-half Ian Humphreys, who now runs Anzo Sports – checked on options abroad. Ealing made an offer and just three days later, Kernohan signed for the ambitious English side, who also have Irishmen Dave Johnston and Shane Buckley on their books. 

The set-up at Ealing is as good as at some Pro14 and Premiership clubs. They train and play on a 4G pitch, while plans are in place to build an indoor half-size pitch on the club’s grounds, as well as a new state-of-the-art gym in conjunction with Brunel University.

The club’s millionaire owner, Mike Gooley, who founded the Trailfinders travel agency, is “very generous” and Kernohan has appreciated seeing him on the sideline at home games passionately shouting the team on.  

Kernohan looks back on his time in Ulster with fondness, having made 21 appearances including two Champions Cup caps.

One of the nice traditions in the province is framing a signed match programme and photo for each player after their debut – with Kernohan taking pride from that day in September 2018, when he was still only 19.

“There were so many moments where I had to pinch myself, thinking about playing for my childhood club. My first game at home – and I took for granted how many were in the crowd back then!

“One of the things I will cherish most was being able to train and play with a lot of guys I had looked up to for a long time. Guys like Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson, someone like Henry Speight when he came over. To be able to play with them and call them friends is special.”

Kernohan naturally learned a huge amount in his time with Ulster, with centre Marshall having a strong influence on him, while he is effusive about the work of defence coach Jared Payne.

ulsters-angus-kernohan Kernohan in action against Racing 92 in Paris in 2018. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“He was exceptional for me, I think he will go very far,” says Kernohan of Payne. “The way he sees the game is next level, particularly defensively but in attack as well. I don’t think many people read the game anywhere near how he does.

“But he’s able to explain it, talk to you, and communicate so effectively that it seems so simple whenever he says it. On top of that, he’s just a good guy to talk to. He has a good relationship with the players. I hold him in very high regard and still think a lot about the things he taught me.”

Kernohan also marked out his talent over the course of two years at Ireland U20s level, the latter of which was the 2019 Grand Slam year under Noel McNamara.

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The Ballymena man enjoyed working with McNamara and the “absolute legend” Paul O’Connell in 2018, as well as getting to know players from Munster, Leinster, and Connacht, but admits he found the U20s environment to be “very intense.”

“When you’re in camp, you’re surrounded by rugby 24/7. Sometimes it’s tough and not too enjoyable but now I look back and realise how great a lesson it all was, the memories I made. It teaches you a lot as a young guy in terms of the off-field stuff, even getting to know guys from all four corners of the country is great.”

Kernohan, who also represented Ireland at U18 and U18 Sevens levels, has come to realise that he functions best when he has balance in his approach to rugby.

“I think I play rugby best whenever I’m not too stressed and more relaxed about it. Before games, I’m naturally a nervous person and I care a lot about it so I would probably tend to tense up a little bit and stress about making a mistake.

“Something I’ve learned as I get older is that whenever I relax, trust I have some natural ability, remember it’s just a fun game, that’s when I play my best. What puts me in that good mind frame is being able to switch off from it at times.”

angus-kernohan-with-fergus-mcfadden The powerful wing has settled in well with Ealing. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Kernohan stresses the importance of being a good professional – analysis, rehab, planning – but he enjoys switching off from his job too.

In that sense, it helps that Kernohan is studying Law online through the Open University, a decision that dates back to pre-Covid times but was “a good option in hindsight!”

While he is ambitious to achieve as much as he can in his rugby career, Kernohan is keen to keep an eye on the future too.

“Rugby is never going to set you up for life, unfortunately, so you need to think about the future. Medicine was always something I wanted to do and I had offers for it in uni but just didn’t feel I could do it with rugby.

“I always want to keep lots of different doors open whether that be the best option in rugby but also off the pitch.”

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