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'To line up alongside Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll was unbelievable'

Brendan Macken has settled into life at Wasps after leaving home province Leinster.

IT WAS FERGUS McFadden’s left shoulder that helped Brendan Macken appreciate what being a professional rugby player is all about.

The centre was sublime in schools rugby for Blackrock College, physically superior to the majority of his fellow teenagers and a constant line-breaking, try-scoring threat in attack.

LeinsterÕs Brendan Macken Macken made 46 appearances for Leinster before joining Wasps last summer. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Dublin native Macken won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup in 2009, standing out in a Blackrock team that also included Jordi Murphy, Andrew Conway and Denis Buckley.

Advancing into the Leinster academy that same year, Macken’s natural instinct was always to run with the ball. His pace and power were blessings, but the youngster soon understood that he would need to round out his skills if he was going to thrive in the professional game.

“I remember at one of my first training sessions I got the ball and tried to go on an outside break,” says Macken. “I got around someone, but then I didn’t even think the winger would step in and there was Ferg.

He came in off his wing and I ran into him. He absolutely melted me. I realised pretty quickly that you can’t just think you’re going to run around everyone.

“It’s such a different game, the schoolboy game into the professional game and there’s some unbelievably smart defenders there. You might think you’re in a bit of space, but then pretty quickly you’re not.”

Now 24 years of age and contracted to the hugely ambitious Premiership club Wasps, Macken believes he is a far more complete player than the one who entered the Leinster system as such a highly-rated prospect.

It was the fact that he had relatively few opportunities to show his more rounded skillset last season that led to Macken looking for a way out of his home province, beginning with a loan move to David Humphreys’ Gloucester in the second half of the campaign.

Brendan Macken gets tackled Macken was a schoolboy star for Blackrock College. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Four starts in the English league followed, before Wasps made an approach that was ideal for Macken.

“I was just so frustrated at that stage, because for various reasons I wasn’t getting picked at home,” says Macken of his move to England. “The opportunity was there to go out on loan (to Gloucester) and straight away I was playing again.

“The Premiership is a lot different to the Pro12, the physicality areas and the ball would be in play a bit more, so I felt I was getting my hands on the ball a lot more. I was really enjoying the league, so that’s why it was perfect for me to stay over here.”

Matt O’Connor had picked Macken 17 times in the 2013/14 season, including his first two Heineken Cup starts, but the Ireland U20 and Emerging Ireland-capped centre made just five appearances in 2014/15 before shipping out to Gloucester.

I was being told I was there or thereabouts, then when you’re not playing the frustration gets more and more,” says Macken. “Ben Te’o joined and he’s been brilliant, so for me it was at that stage that I realised that I wasn’t going to play a lot.

“To be honest it was really easy for me (to make a decision to leave). I turned 24 in May, so I’m still pretty young and I got through a good few games for Leinster. It was an easy decision.”

Macken has made one start in Wasps’ opening four games of the Premiership season and may well miss out on Sunday’s Champions Cup clash against Leinster at the RDS, but he is enthusiastic about the season ahead.

He wore the 12 shirt against Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins last month and is excited about getting further opportunities to show that his passing and awareness – two areas he consistently worked hard on at Leinster – have improved.

Brendan Macken Macken started two Heineken Cup games for Leinster at 13. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“That’s one thing I was frustrated about at Leinster,” says Macken. “I feel like I wasn’t really able to use my pass that much.

“People always talk about making others look good and that’s why I’m enjoying doing a bit at 12 over here as well, because I’m able to use my pass. I feel that I’m more rounded, that I have more strings to my bow now, rather than just getting the ball, tucking it under my right arm and having a go.”

Wasps’ recent growth has been impressive, their controversial move to play home games at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry having proven successful. The signings of Wallaby legend George Smith, All Blacks Frank Halai and Charles Piutau (before he joins Ulster next season), as well as Samoan international James Johnston have underlined their increased spending power.

Macken is another of the new recruits alongside compatriot James Downey, while Jimmy Gopperth also made the move from Leinster but is suspended for this weekend’s Champions Cup tie.

Wasps’ new training base in Coventry won’t be ready until next summer, explains Macken, meaning that he gets to “experience London for a year, which is pretty cool.”

The Dubliner has settled in the western district of Chiswick, and is very much enjoying the tight-knit feel among the Wasps players, the majority of whom are not London locals.

Having had to sit behind the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy at Leinster for so many years, Macken is now facing another tussle for game time at Wasps, whose backline depth is a major strength.

“It’s great because you’re training with such good players,” says Macken of the competition for places. “For me in the centre, I’ve got Elliot Daly, Alapati Leiua coming back from injury, then Ben Jacobs, James Downey and also Andrea Masi.

Brendan Macken Macken's memories of Leinster are hugely positive. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“In the back three it’s ridiculous. You’ve got the lads from down south, Frank, Charles and Sailosi (Tagicakibau), then you’ve got Christian Wade who’s trying to get back into the English set-up. Rob Millar is playing really well as well.”

Director of rugby Dai Young, the former Wales and Lions prop, is likely to go with future England international Daly in the 13 shirt this weekend, while one of Jacobs or Downey looks set to start at inside centre.

Macken relishes the selection battle ahead, however, and has clearly moved on from his Leinster days. That doesn’t stop him reflecting on how important those six years were, particularly in how much he learned about the game.

It was Michael Cheika who handed an 18-year-old Macken his Leinster debut against Glasgow in the Celtic League.

That came in April of 2010, but Macken had actually been involved in Leinster’s week-long training camp in France in the summer of 2009, less than two months after he sat his Leaving Cert.

“I came straight out of school and I was quite fortunate that there were a couple of injuries in the centre,” says Macken.

“Chieka brought me along to Nice and instilled loads of confidence in my game. I ended up playing the pre-season friendly there (against Rugby Nice Cote d’Azur). He was always extremely positive towards me, which I really benefited from. The whole way through he was great to work with.”

Joe Schmidt replaced the Australian in the Leinster hot seat the following season, one in which Macken played for the Ireland U20s – his second year at that level. The Kiwi saw enough in the centre to hand him his first senior start in February 2011, against Aironi.

Brendan Macken 10/2/2011 Macken made his first Leinster start under Schmidt. Source: James Crombie

Macken lasted only 14 minutes before cruelly breaking his arm. The presence of O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Eoin O’Malley and McFadden meant opportunities were somewhat limited over the next two seasons, though Macken did make 23 appearances under Schmidt in total.

“Joe’s attention to detail is out of this world, it’s amazing,” says Macken of working with the Ireland coach. “He got the finer detail of my game moving forward. He really helped me work on that, because I didn’t really always see it.

“You can do, say, three or four brilliant things in a game but at the same time make one or two poor mistakes. I had kind of thought that that was ok, in my head I was thinking ‘It’s grand, I did the x-factor things.’

He really got it into me that you can’t be making those mistakes, so I worked hard on that and really benefited from his attention to detail.”

Now Macken is learning from Young, a “hands-on” director of rugby who links with defence coach Brad Davis and attack specialist Lee Blackett. Wasps is everything as Macken strives to show that he is a multi-skilled centre, but Leinster will always hold a special place in his heart.

“I have unbelievably fond memories,” says Macken. “It was such a privilege to play for my home team and it was an honour to play with the players I played with. To line up alongside Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, guys like that, was unbelievable.

“To get my Heineken Cup debut, I’ll never forget that against the Ospreys. When the team was named I had Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney coming up to shake my hand. Those things I’ll always look back on fondly.”

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Murray Kinsella

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