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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 28 May, 2020

English-born but Irish-qualified, Brett Connon shows value of Exiles system

The 19-year-old Newcastle Falcons man starts at fullback against Italy tomorrow.

WHILE THE AWAY WIN against England two weekends ago stands out as a highlight in many of the Ireland U20 players’ young careers, the day was a little more special for Brett Connon.

The out-half, who will start at fullback versus Italy in Donnybrook tomorrow [KO 7.35pm], came off the bench against the English at his home club’s stadium, Kingston Park.

Brett Connon kicks a penalty Connon kicked five points against England. Source: Alex Dodd/INPHO

A native of England but qualified for Ireland through his father, a Dubliner, Connon actually faced off against his housemate and fellow Newcastle Falcon, England U20 captain and number eight Callum Chick.

“I met him a couple of times when I was on the floor,” says 19-year-old Connon with a smile. “I took a little bit of slagging off him on the pitch.”

Connon’s involvement with Ireland comes thanks to the IRFU’s Exiles system, which identifies potential Irish professional players based in England, Wales and Scotland.

Connon’s older brother, out-half Grant, initially laid the platform by being the first in the family to represent Ireland at U18 level. Grant is currently playing with Darlington Mowden Park in National League One alongside the third Connon brother, scrum-half Max.

Brett followed in Grant’s footsteps in 2014, helping the Ireland U18 clubs to a 30-22 victory over their English counterparts. The Newcastle prospect kicked 20 points against the English, and now has a second win over his native country under his belt.

I was only twelve at the time [Grant played Ireland U18s], so that would have had a big effect on me,” says Connon.

“I wanted to follow my brother and maybe one-up him, so definitely that was in the back of my mind when I was playing and training at youth age group.”

The Connon brothers began their rugby careers with local club Carlisle RFC, and Brett joined the Newcastle Falcons’ junior academy at the age of 15.

That provided him with a higher-quality of coaching and education as he played for Newcastle’s U15, U16 and U18 sides, before signing full academy terms with the Premiership club in 2015.

Brett Connon 19-year-old Connon would be open to a move to Ireland. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Key to Connon’s development has been the opportunity to head out on dual-registration status and play senior rugby in National League One. The teenager starred for Tynedale in the 2014/15 season and is spending some of this campaign playing with Blaydon.

“It is good to have senior rugby under your belt,” says Connon. “A lot of people do step down to play that level to pick up game time to prepare for the [Newcastle] seniors.”

Last summer saw Connon get a taste of exactly that as he featured for the Falcons in their pre-season fixtures against Sale and Leicester.

Among the senior squad in Newcastle are Cork man Paddy Ryan and George McGuigan, who played for Ireland at U18 and U20 levels. Hooker McGuigan came through the Exiles system too and the IRFU were interested in bringing him to Ireland next season, before the 22-year-old agreed a move to Leicester Tigers.

Connon says he had spoken to McGuigan about playing international U20s rugby before his call-up from head coach Nigel Carolan, while stressing the fine work that the likes of development manager Mark Blair are doing with the Exiles branch of the IRFU.

“There is big, big depth and it is coming through now,” says Connon of Irish-qualified players in England. “There are a lot of people who have gone over to Ulster and you have got a few people travelling across and starting to set up camp in Ireland.

“You have guys like Kieron Marmion and Johnny McPhillips and myself coming across now. There are definitely more and more coming and it is good for the Irish people over in England.”

Indeed, the likes of McPhillips, Sam Arnold and Lorcan Dow are among those to have joined Ulster from England in recent times, though Arnold will bring his rich promise to Munster next season.

Brett Connon Connon hopes for his first U20 Six Nations start this weekend. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Connon says he would be entirely open to the prospect of doing something similar.

“Definitely, I see myself as an Irish-qualified player. If I get the opportunity, I’d love to come across and base myself over here.”

The impression he made off the bench against England, kicking a conversion and a penalty as Ireland pulled off their sensational comeback, should help in attracting interest from the provinces.

Connon also featured as a replacement against France and Wales, but his form has convinced Carolan of his starting credentials. Though the Newcastle man prefers playing at out-half, the injury to Jack Power has seen Connon selected at 15 this weekend.

Funnily enough, the man who has been picked at out-half so far is a former Newcastle Falcons underage star himself. McPhillips, now on the books in Ulster’s academy, played for England U18s as recently as last year and was a star at the well-regarded Sedbergh School.

“I just like to get on the pitch and I guess having two fly-halves on the pitch is not to be sniffed at,” says Connon of McPhillips getting the nod at 10 so far. “It gets two pairs of hands on the ball and you can help each other out on the pitch.”

Whether at fullback or out-half, there seems a strong possibility that Connon will be the latest Irish-qualified youngster to make a permanent move across the Irish Sea.

Ireland U20s play Italy at Donnybrook tomorrow [KO 7.35pm] and tickets are available here.

Source: The42 Six Nations Show/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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