Irish Abroad

'Ross, Joey and Johnny were established and I couldn't really see things changing'

Cathal Marsh will be playing rugby in the US after signing for Rugby United New York.

LAST YEAR, ONE of Cathal Marsh’s old school coaches, Greg McWilliams, mentioned to him that a new professional rugby competition was launching in North America.

Still a Leinster player at that stage, Marsh admits he didn’t put too much thought into the former St Michael’s teacher’s words at that time but the wheels had been subtly set in motion by McWilliams, who is now USA’s attack coach.

Fast forward a year and talented out-half Marsh is signed up to play Major League Rugby [MLR].

Cathal Marsh Marsh will be playing Major League Rugby in 2019. Mike Sheehan / INPHO Mike Sheehan / INPHO / INPHO

The 26-year-old, who left his native province at the end of last season, has joined Rugby United New York [RUNY] on a two-year deal in what is a major coup for the club and MLR as a competition.

MLR enjoyed a highly-promising first season this year, with the Seattle Seawolves prevailing, and will expand to nine teams in 2019 with the introduction of RUNY and the Ontario Arrows in Canada.

“James English, the general manager, got onto me in July and he just seemed very ambitious with where they wanted to go,” says Marsh of how his move came about.

“I guess he has one of the easier jobs attracting people to New York! He had a good vision, the club had recruited really well and James just sold the league and the city to me, so it didn’t take long to make up my mind.”

Marsh, who doesn’t have any US family connections, may be excited about moving to the States, but RUNY are equally excited about having captured him ahead of next season.

In Marsh, they get a creative playmaker who has played in the Heineken Champions Cup and made a total of 26 appearances for Leinster.

Many felt the St Mary’s man should have featured more prominently for Leinster in the past two seasons, but the emergence of Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne, as well as the presence of Johnny Sexton, meant Marsh had decided last year that it was time to move on.

“I had come to terms with leaving probably before Christmas time,” he says. “It wasn’t that tough a conversation to have with Leo [Cullen] really. He sort of asked me after Christmas where my head was at and, at that stage, Ross, Joey and Johnny were well established and I couldn’t really see things changing.

Cathal Marsh Marsh in action for Leinster last season. Ryan Wilkisky / INPHO Ryan Wilkisky / INPHO / INPHO

“I loved playing with the As and things like that when you’re younger but I didn’t want to play another season there. 

“I’m not even sure if they would have wanted me around but I didn’t really want another season on the outskirts there, playing for the As, so I was ready to move on. I’m 26-years-old now so I should be coming into my peak. 

“I just wanted to play and it will be good to be one of the main men in New York and just get some game time.”

A former Ireland U20 international, Marsh made his Leinster debut in 2013 while still in the academy and advanced onto a senior contract in 2015.

His first season as a senior player in 2015/16 was excellent as he made eight starts in the number 10 shirt, as well as a further five off the bench. The future looked bright, but a combination of injuries and the aforementioned competition slowed his progress.

“I loved my time at Leinster, all in all,” says Marsh. “It had ups and downs but there were some very enjoyable periods. I played a lot during the last World Cup in 2015, was sort of bossing the team and thought I was developing really well. Those times were great.

“The last couple of years were obviously a bit more challenging with injuries and not getting much game time. But all in all, I loved it and I definitely learned a lot that I can bring to New York, as well as having a lot of friends in Leinster.”

A long-term foot injury in January of this year meant deciding on his next move was tricky – with a lack of certainty around when he would be fit again – so when RUNY came in with an offer in July, Marsh didn’t take long to decide on a very new adventure.

Cathal Marsh celebrates his try with Dan Leavy Marsh had an excellent 2015/16 season for Leinster. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Playing alongside him at RUNY will be a handful of Irishmen in former St Mary’s man and now USA hooker Dylan Fawsitt, ex-Leinster underage team-mate Marcus Walsh, Kilkenny College alumnus Ross Deacon, former Connacht lock Dave Gannon, and ex-Ireland Schools back Jack Fitzpatrick, who is a Canada international.

The fact that RUNY’s chairman and founder, James Kennedy, is a Tipperary man and they play at Gaelic Park in the Bronx should ensure good support from the Irish community in New York.

With former USA head coach Mike Tolkin in charge of the team for their first season in MLR – the campaign starts next April – hopes of being competitive are high. Marsh will be the figurehead in the 10 shirt.

“I’ve always enjoyed being one of the leaders,” says Marsh. “I’ve had some conversations with Mike and we have similar outlooks on the game – we want to play an attacking, high-tempo, unpredictable brand of rugby.

“It’s amazing that it’s a brand-new team and we can leave our imprint on it.”

Marsh’s progress in the US is certain to be closely watched by many players on this side of the Atlantic too, with RUNY’s move for the former Leinster man underlining that MLR is here to stay. 

“The more options and professional leagues around the world, the better for players,” says Marsh.

“The opportunity to play professionally in New York, San Diego, Seattle, places like this, it’s a great opportunity for young players, especially when it’s so competitive in the Irish provinces. 

“It’s another avenue to go down and that’s welcome for players. I’m sure next summer that I’ll have a few lads onto me to see what the story is in New York.”  

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