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'It's a great story for any young player that has experienced living with a setback'

Just two years ago, Cian Prendergast was told there was no place for him in Leinster’s Academy. Now he’s on tour in with Ireland in New Zealand.

Prendergast

SOME PLAYERS COME up through the Irish rugby underage systems destined for bigger things. Others spend their time proving people wrong before arriving at the top. 

Cian Prendergast falls into the latter category.

The 22-year-old is one of five uncapped players in Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad currently on tour in New Zealand, and is set to wear the green jersey for the first time at senior level in Wednesday morning’s opening fixture against the Maori All Blacks, but his road to this juncture has been full of twists, turns and the odd flat tyre. 

Yet for every setback along the way there has been one constant – Prendergast’s strong belief that he can rise to the top, an attribute which has seen him make the most of situations other players might shy away from. 

One such decision came amid the uncertainty of the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Leinster had just informed Prendergast – a sub-Academy player on the province’s books – they had no room for him in their Academy programme. A couple of days later, Connacht Academy manager Eric Elwood gave the young Newbridge man a call.

“There are players who would get a call from Connacht and say ‘No, I want to stay at Leinster and bide my time’, and then they kind of just fade away, but Cian took a big punt,” says Brett Igoe, who worked with Prendergast at Leinster schools level and later with UCD’s AIL side. 

cian-prendergast-during-the-training Prendergast during Ireland training in Auckland on Tuesday.

“What I like about Cian is he didn’t give up on it.” 

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Igoe casts his mind back a couple of years.

“I first came across Cian at Leinster U18s standard, but he actually wasn’t in the U18s, he was in the U17s programme. We went down and watched the U17s train, looking for a back row-stroke-second row for the Leinster schools team, and he was a standout – an absolute standout.

“No disrespect to Newbridge, but at that time they weren’t producing a lot of age grade players. They are now, but around 2015/16 they weren’t.

“We were going, where the hell did this kid come from? No-one knew really much about him, and he ended up playing in the second row with Ryan Baird, who would have been the captain at that stage.

“He played for the Leinster schools a year young, and only got about five minutes off the bench, but he was so good in those five minutes that you had to start him in the next game. He was that level. The following year, 2017, he was the captain.”

Mark Butler worked with Prendergast around the same time, coaching him with both the Ireland U18s clubs and schools team and the Ireland U19s, during which time he briefly saw a slightly different side to the player.

The U18s clubs and schools side can be a hard sell given it acts as a secondary team to the Ireland U18s schools – a back-up to try ensure no talented young prospect slips through the cracks. 

“Cian was a little bit unlucky in that it was in a very competitive year in the back row so he ended up in the clubs and schools,” Butler says.

If you are in a player’s shoes at the time, you probably feel like you had missed out on the schools team. We initially had Cian in the camp in preparation for a match against Canada U18s and you could tell he was a little bit down, just by the body language and that, but not negative. He was highly ambitious and could see some of his buddies across with the schools team.

“One of my memories is just sitting down and chatting to him, reassuring him he still had a great opportunity to put his hand up, this is part of the pathway and he can still get to where he wants to get to further down the line with the Ireland U19s and U20s and into academies and so on.

“Once that happened, I did see a bit of a change in him, and I have to say, he was excellent. He acquitted himself exceptionally well. We made him captain for the game against Canada and he performed exceptionally, and as luck would have it, he got called out of our camp and into the schools camp after that game and went across to Wales with the Ireland U18s schools to play in the Six Nations.”

Both Igoe and Butler highlight that even at a young age, Prendergast showed leadership qualities beyond his years.

“When I sat down with him, he was a very confident young man,” Butler says. “He’d look you in the eye when he was talking to you, he was to the point, he was ambitious and very, very respectful. 

cian-prendergast-is-tackled-by-carlo-tizzano Prendergast on Ireland U19s duty in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“Then in terms of attributes as a rugby player, he had a really good physical frame for sticking out in the game, and was a very skillful forward.”

Having the talent is only half the battle. Crucially, Prendergast also had the work ethic. 

“Whenever I had Cian in a training camp or in for preparation for a game, he made every minute count,” Butler continues.

“There was always a lot of potential there with Cian. But I would say when I came across him he was probably in the process of learning to put all the pieces of his game together. But the rate of improvement in a short space of time, probably catapulted by the move to Connacht, was phenomenal.”

“He was always someone that stood out in an age group,” Igoe continues.

“A hugely athletic guy, incredible feet for such a big man, gets yards in contact and a fantastic ball-carrier. You’d be very happy for him to be the first person off the bus and for the opposition to look at him. He is a big man.

And we noticed him in meetings. He was speaking up and talking straight away. There’s a few players like that, James Ryan was the exact same, where they have a huge confidence in their own ability and they’re very comfortable talking to their peers, very comfortable in that environment. 

“Those guys, they command respect with their physical size, but it’s what they can say and what they do and how they go about it. They embrace the professionalism, the gym work, getting the extras done, extras around the lineout, and they’re able to coach the other kids as well.”

Yet for all his quality, Prendergast was finding it tough to rise above the competition in a competitive back row – the versatile forward also plying his trade in the second row at the time. 

“He probably learned a lot about himself by having to overcome a couple of hurdles along the way,” Butler says.

“I think that might be a bit of a recurring theme in Cian’s development. He’s definitely built a resilience as a result. I can think of a few different selections that Cian missed out on, like that one with the Ireland schools. The season after, Cian would have been in sixth year and he missed out on selection for the Ireland U19s that travelled to Corsica to play France.

“Then in his U20s year, he got news that there might not have been something there in Leinster, but Connacht were interested. So over the span of three seasons, while you had an upward curve, there were a couple of speed bumps along the way.”

Prendergast was part of the Ireland U20s Covid-curtailed Six Nations campaign in 2020 and in the months before Connacht came calling that summer, he was also busy rolling up his sleeves with UCD in the AIL, where he found himself back working alongside Igoe, the team’s attack coach.

“He was outstanding. Absolutely outstanding,” Igoe says.

cian-prendergast Prendergast playing for UCD. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We came third in the AIL that year which was UCD’s best-ever finish. The majority of that was down to players like Cian, players coming from the (Leinster) sub-Academy, but he was a standout. He had no problem playing at that level.

“He also wanted to get better at everything. I did all the reviews and the previews of opposition, and you have a full scale conversation and Cian would be pointing out things that I would have missed, asking can I see this or that again.

We would have players in UCD who would come down and it’d be like it was a drop down to where they were coming from. But someone like Cian, that didn’t matter. It was minutes, and he just wanted to play because he knew Academy coaches would pore over videos of their game time and GPS scores and all that stuff.

“He knew that playing AIL and standing out would get him further down the track. He used the AIL to promote himself.”

The all-important move to Connacht came just two summers ago, the western province taking a chance on a young Leinster man in need of an opportunity elsewhere.

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Prendergast made 10 appearances – six off the bench – in his first year at the Sportsground and was rewarded with his first professional contract. 

“I remember coming across Cian playing for Connacht As against Munster (last season), and I just couldn’t believe it was the same player,” Butler says.

“The environment seemed to be very good for him, and I know he is a very, very hard worker. I’ve heard stories coming out of Connacht that he has worked unbelievably hard, first in and last out every day kind of thing.

“But I couldn’t believe the rate of improvement in a season when he went to Connacht. He really transformed himself.”

He stepped things up again in his second season and is now a key member of the Connacht first team, starting 18 games across the campaign just gone, layering extra detail into his game to compliment that imposing 6’4″, 112kg frame, with his work around the ruck particularly impressive.

He ended the year by collecting the Connacht Fans’ Player of the Year and Rugby Players Ireland Men’s Young Player of the Year awards.

“The move has been brilliant for him” Igoe adds.

“I know from talking to a few coaches at Leicester, when they played Connacht in their European Cup games (this season), they probably didn’t know too much about certain Connacht players. They’d know the Bundee Akis and the Ireland guys, but Cian shocked them. They couldn’t believe how good this kid was.”

cian-prendergast-wins-a-lineout Prendergast was outstanding against Leicester in December. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Leicester weren’t the only ones who were impressed. Andy Farrell had been keeping a close eye and quickly got Prendergast into Ireland camp as a development player. Tomorrow he starts in the back row as Ireland take on the Maori All Blacks in Hamilton. 

Both Igoe and Butler are confident he will thrive in that highly-competitive environment as Prendergast prepares to take another significant step in his young career.

“I would be very surprised if he’s not in that Ireland camp full-on questioning Paul O’Connell, full conversations about the lineout,” Igoe says.

“I’d say he has his head in laptops, learning lineout calls, learning his detail, because that’s the sort of guy he is. He’s very conscientious about his work.

He’s a good lad to have a changing room too. He’ll be brilliant on tour. He’s a good laugh, he’ll be looking for a bit of craic, but he’ll also lead the charge and get all his detail. He knows when to work and when to have fun. That’s a huge part, especially on a tour like New Zealand.”

“It’s a great story for any young player or any parents of a player that has experienced living with a setback or missed out,” Butler continues.”When you’re in a position like mine you see it all the time but you forget sometimes how tough it is for the players.

“Connacht have done an outstanding job, but it’s down to the player to make the most of that opportunity, and Cian has certainly done that.” 

Igoe agrees. “You can actually use his story to other kids coming up through the ranks. Like, Leinster are one of the biggest clubs in Europe, but just because you’re not picked up there, it’s not the end of your career, you know? For kids like that, Cian’s is a great story. 

“And he’ll keep growing. His room to grow is massive. Andy Friend has unleashed the next level in him, and hopefully Andy Farrell can now unleash the next level again. 

“He seems to be able to lift his game when he goes into new environments. I’ve no doubt he’ll do that again.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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