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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 21 February, 2020

'The opportunity came out of nowhere': From the AIL to the Champions Cup 1/4 finals (and back again)

This time last year Angus Lloyd was preparing for a Champions Cup quarter-final, now he’s back studying and pondering how to dismantle UCD’s defence.

RUGBY IS A fickle game, a career path built on sand.

One spring you can be happily progressing through your studies while showing your wares in the Ulster Bank League, the next you can be close enough to taste the highest level of European competition.

And the spring after that, like Angus Lloyd, you can find yourself all the way back where you started.

Lloyd isn’t complaining, far from it. He doesn’t see his rugby arc – through Ulster and Munster in a single season and back to Dublin University in the AIL – as a cautionary tale, more a serendipitous story.

This weekend marks a year since Lloyd played in the Champions Cup against Toulouse, helping Munster see off the tournament’s traditional big name and advance to meet Saracens.

Rory Scannell Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A European party atmosphere in Thomond Park is an odd scenario for a young Dubliner to be in the thick of in his rookie pro season. Odder still when you consider that Lloyd began the season with Ulster. And yet, it was entirely fitting that he should be part of that incredible emotional Munster season. Because it was Anthony Foley who picked up the phone asking to have a closer look at the scrum-half shining through in the AIL before Ulster eventually came around with the offer.

“He rang Tony (Smeeth, Dublin University director of rugby) and asked If I’d go and play for Munster A. It would have been around April time (2016)…. literally, I just turned up, didn’t train or anything, came off the bench and played 25 minutes against Ulster A. I didn’t hear back from Munster, but Ulster called me about three weeks later.”

“It was just an opportunity I got, managed to go well in that ‘A’ game and it snowballed from there,” he tells The42.

With no little flexibility from the RCSI, Lloyd was able to hit pause on his medical studies and set about living the life of a professional rugby player.

By November, that same life gave Cathal Sheridan a broken ankle (that ultimately ended his career at 28) and prompted Munster to ask for Lloyd to move south and out of Ruan Pienaar’s sizable shadow.

Angus Lloyd with Max Whittingham Lloyd in action for Ballymena in 2016. Source: Presseye/Freddie Parkinson/INPHO

Still, starting over again with a new team and a new system can be a struggle for a seasoned veteran, let alone a 24-year-old bouncing out of the AIL. But he got there, got to the Champions Cup quarter-final and was a reserve behind the matchday squad come semi-final day.

These are experiences rugby players simply do not trade.

“It was quite surreal, because I went from not really being involved much and struggling to get into the squad. Then I got a chance and played quite well out in Zebre and then the next thing, a week later I’m on the bench against Toulouse.

“It was the best experience I had last year. The hotel before the game, going to the ground by Garda escort, that atmosphere; the Munster supporters were pretty amazing when you’re playing in a packed stadium down in Thomond.

“Surreal is the only word I can really use to describe it… you’re in awe, asking: ‘is this happening, really?’”

Fast forward 12 months and the big game in Lloyd’s rearview mirror is a club international. On the horizon is the AIL Division 1A ‘Colours Match’ that sees UCD travel to Trinity next Thursday. It’s a contest both institutions look forward to with utter relish.

“Realistically is the biggest game of the season,” says Lloyd, “it’s a special atmosphere, completely different to every other AIL game. The league element sort of goes to the back of your mind.”

He is back in RCSI in the second year of his medicine degree and enjoying the balance between the two. But having been to the dizzy heights, preparing to go back to base camp had its challenges.

Jacob Stockdale clears the ball under pressure from Angus Lloyd Lloyd attempts to charge down Jacob Stockdale. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Having made enough of an impression on Rassie Erasmus to start the late-season inter-pros against Ulster and Connacht, there was hope that he could find a second year as a professional. But Lloyd was caught between two stools. He was in Munster as an emergency signing and they had James Hart on the way, his original employers in Ulster had replaced Pienaar with John Cooney and re-signed Dave Shanahan.

“Too little too late, really,” Lloyd says self-critically, but adds:

“If you’d told me back at Christmas that I wasn’t going to get another contract I’d have probably happily accepted it. I’d made no impression, but by the end of the season I’d felt I had possibly done enough.

“But the way circumstances were, I was just unlucky, sort of fell through the cracks.

I was disappointed, but at the same time it was an unbelievable experience. I loved every second of it. The days I was in the squad, even being 24th man for the Saracens match, loved every second of it.

“I was disappointed and it hit me hard for the first couple of weeks, but on reflection it was an unbelievable year. I’m back in medicine now and trying to get that side of my life back on track.”

Angus Lloyd Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

His studies will ensure he doesn’t chase the fickle sport outside of Ireland and the 25-year-old scrum-half retains hope that he’s not yet ‘one-and-done’ on the big stage and that another chance to shine at provincial level will crop up.

The opportunity came out of nowhere. I was playing in the AIL just doing my thing for Trinity and the opportunity arose from nothing.”

“I say it all the time, there are plenty of players in the AIL who are good enough to play professional, it’s just about how you try and integrate the two to make more opportunities available.

“At the moment getting into pro rugby from the AIL is hard, because you’re waiting for a very lucky break similar to mine, when there’s an opening in the market.”

And when those chances come, you have to be ready to jump. Then jump again, higher and hope for a few large slices of luck to help you cling on to the dream.

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Sean Farrell

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