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Blade made his Ireland debut last summer.
Blade made his Ireland debut last summer.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

'Monivea was everything. I wanted to play my whole career there when I was younger'

Connacht’s Caolin Blade discusses his rugby upbringing, sniping game, and love of the breakdown.
Mar 2nd 2022, 7:00 PM 26,288 17

THE 10TH OF July last summer was a big day for Caolin Blade’s family and all of Monivea.

The 27-year-old Connacht scrum-half made his Ireland debut against the US and he had a good crew from home cheering him on among the crowd of around 6,000 people in Dublin.

While nothing on that scale before, the Blades and Monivea have had some big days out with the rugby before.

Like the time Caolin’s older brother, Darren, played with their father, Pat, in a Connacht Junior Cup final for their beloved Monivea RFC. Pat was in his mid-40s at that stage.

“They played in the Sportsground – Darren was scrum-half and his dad came on at out-half in one of his last games,” recalls Caolin fondly.

Monivea’s Castlegrounds is where rugby started for Blade when he was just six. He looked up to his father, while Darren and his other brother, Eoin, also starred for the club in their County Galway village. Darren coached Caolin up through the underage teams and is now head coach for the men’s side.

“Monivea was everything,” says Blade. “I wanted to play my whole career there when I was younger because that was all I knew.”

He played every sport he could and excelled at football and hurling, good enough in the latter to represent Galway at U16 level.

Rugby began taking over as he grew up but Blade still loves the GAA. He even snuck in a few games of football with Abbeyknockmoy’s intermediate team when he was pushing through at U20 level in rugby.

caolan-blade Caolin Blade was launching the Wings for Life World Run. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I don’t think anyone in Connacht knew but I wrapped that up quickly in case anyone found out!” he says with a smile.

“But look, I loved it. GAA is a special thing and anyone in Ireland can understand how big a thing the club and community is for a place like Monivea and Abbeyknockmoy. I was delighted to be part of that.”

Coming through the ranks with Monivea RFC and also playing rugby at school in Athenry Vocational School – who he helped all the way to a Connacht Senior Cup semi-final – Blade was an out-half or centre.

He first played scrum-half with the Connacht U17s and then continued to combine positions up until he was 19. That was after he had gone dual-status, playing at scrum-half for senior club Galwegians on Saturdays and then at outside centre for Monivea on Sundays.

New Zealander Cory Brown was a player development officer with Connacht at the time, as well as coaching ‘Wegians after a stint with Monivea, so he understood the dilemma Blade faced. But after playing more than 50 games in one season, something had to give as Blade realised he could give pro rugby a real shot.

“I didn’t like leaving Monivea but everyone there knew why I was doing it,” he says.

“They still support me to this day. You never know, hopefully in a couple of years’ time, I might make a comeback.”

Blade has never looked back since advancing into the Connacht academy in 2013, although he initially felt he had lots of ground to make up.

Other scrum-halves had been playing in the position for many years more than him, honing their kicking and passing skills, so Blade focused heavily on getting his to the required level.

“Cory Brown used to make me carry a ball around with me everywhere in the Sportsground,” remembers Blade.

“If he saw me without it, he’d give out to me. I used to have to hold it in my left hand, I used to have to eat with my left hand, use my phone with my left hand, because I was way more right-hand dominant.

“When I was younger playing with Monivea, I probably didn’t need to pass the ball as much when I was playing at 13, I didn’t really practice my passing. When I was coming in with Pat Lam, I had to get my passing up to speed very quickly because you wouldn’t have been in senior training if it wasn’t.”

jj-van-der-mescht-and-caolin-blade Blade is always a running threat. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As he nailed down the basics, Blade began to show more of his points of difference.

As we see nearly every time he plays now, his strengths include a constant sniping threat around the breakdown and set-piece.

“If there’s a ruck, you’re coming to the ball as quick as you can but you have to have your eyes up,” explains Blade.

“It’s a collection of a lot of things – your connection with your out-half and knowing where he is. You’re listening more so than looking with that. Things just happen and you have to have your eyes up to see them.

“I might look for it too much sometimes but I’d rather go for it than miss it!”

His lightning-sharp acceleration helps hugely in making these darts. 

“My stature, that’s one of the advantages of being small, my 0-10 [metres] has always been quite quick. It’s one of the most important things if you’re that type of scrum-half, you need to be really quick. Those gaps appear and they’re gone in the blink of an eye.”

Blade always appears calm once he gets behind the defensive line, very often linking with team-mates through his passing or offloading, rather than dying with the ball.

He puts that down to Connacht’s training and trust in his team-mates.

“We train a lot of unstructured games,” he says. “I’m used to being in those situations from any part of the field. No matter what coach we’ve had, we do a lot of games where you don’t have a position.

“We call it ‘All 9s’ where anyone can be a scrum-half, anyone can be on the wing, anyone can be the first receiver. 

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“If I do get behind the line, it’s a calmness from me but also a trust that I always have someone around me who is talking to me. It works both ways.”

It may well be that Blade’s history as a centre helps in that regard, while it has definitely helped his enthusiasm as a defender.

There aren’t too many scrum-halves who excel at the defensive breakdown but it’s a part of the game Blade enjoys.

jack-carty-and-caolin-blade-tackle-damian-de-allende Blade loves competing at the breakdown. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“There’s times where I miss tackles, that’s part and parcel of it, but I love it,” he says of defending.

“One of the biggest things is that I love getting involved in rucks and trying to jackal. I’ve got quite a few turnovers. I think it’s a core skill for any rugby player in any position.

“I could be in behind the line and there could be a half-break from an attacker and that’s the best place to jackal. My stature actually helps me so much because it’s often a 6ft 3ins guy trying to clear me out, so it works out to my advantage.”

Blade hasn’t had as many starting opportunities to show his skills as he would have hoped for this season, but injury hasn’t helped. 

This was the first campaign as a pro that he began with an injury issue, all the more frustrating as he came off the high of a brilliant 2020/21 season that ended with that first Ireland cap.

“I picked up an Achilles injury and it happened in Ireland camp but I wasn’t saying too much because I didn’t want to miss my chance,” says Blade. “But look, I’m not overthinking it.

“I’ve been involved quite a bit and only missed three or four games. It’s just about getting more minutes and I’m sure I will push on again.”

Connacht confirmed a new one-year contract through until the summer of 2023 for Blade back in January and he’s looking forward to finishing this season with a bang as he continues to compete with the in-form Kieran Marmion at scrum-half.

His Ireland debut under Andy Farrell was an enjoyable experience and Blade wants to get another taste of that level.

“It made me hungrier for more and this season has probably been a dip from that, but the only thing I can do is get back on the field and show what I’m about.”

Cáolin Blade was launching the ninth edition of the Wings for Life World Run which offers runners of all levels an opportunity to run separately for a united cause, raising funds for the not-for-profit spinal cord research foundation. Connacht Rugby alongside Irish Women’s Hockey are encouraging runners of all levels to register for the biggest ever Wings for Life World App Run taking place on Sunday 8th May. 

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Murray Kinsella

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