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'Rugby can be great but it can end tomorrow. There's injury and it can be ruthless'

Former Connacht out-half Conor Dean is now one of the youngest rugby agents in the game.

Dean on his Connacht debut against Munster in 2019.
Dean on his Connacht debut against Munster in 2019.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WHEN CONNACHT OUT-half Conor Dean was included in the province’s list of departing players in the summer of 2021, you wondered which club he might pop up at next.

He had debuted for the westerners against Munster at Thomond Park in 2019 and shown his promise, having also played two seasons with the Ireland U20s after coming through the ranks at Blackrock College in Dublin.

Instead, 24-year-old Dean has ended up in a completely different area of the sport and is now one of the youngest rugby agents in the game.

“It came out of nowhere really,” says Dean of his new job with Navy Blue Sports, who represent a range of Irish internationals and provincial players, as well as a handful of athletes from other sports and several media figures.

“I was only 23, hoping to play professional rugby for another couple of years. But once I stepped back and thought about it, I knew it was something I’d love to do and I’d be stupid not to take the chance.”

Dean is still playing rugby, having returned to his home club of St Mary’s College RFC, who sit third in Division 1B of the All-Ireland League. His experience allows him to offer plenty of input and he hopes to start his coaching badges next season, although he doesn’t see that as a future career.

The offer to become a rugby agent came from Niall Woods, who is the managing director of Navy Blue Sports and who represented Dean during his time in the pro game.

Woods knew Dean as personable and hard-working, so felt he had what it needed to be an agent and Dean is enjoying the work so far. Some of his experiences in the game are relevant to what he’s doing now.

“That’s the idea, I’m fresh out of the system and luckily went through the whole age-grade system, so have that knowledge of it for the younger lads coming through,” says Dean.

connachts-conor-dean Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“When you’re playing 20s and coming out the back end of the 20s, it’s important to touch base with someone and get their perspective.

“You’re in the bubble in a sense, almost thinking everyone is looking after you, and you don’t know what else is out there. It’s important to talk to someone who has knowledge because there’s a lot of options out there for young players coming through and also a lot of competition.”

Dean kept a focus on his education while playing, first studying marketing in DIT in Dublin before switching to a commerce degree in NUI Galway with the help of Deirdre Lyons in Rugby Players Ireland when he moved to Connacht.

“Rugby can be great but it’s important for anyone coming through that it’s not the be-all-and-end-all,” says Dean.

“There have to be goals outside rugby, your personal life, and having something in mind career-wise for after rugby. It can end tomorrow, you never know. There’s injury and it can be ruthless enough.

“In some kind of terms, it’s a business at the end of the day. You could fall out of favour or have an argument with a coach. There’s no certainty in rugby or in sport.”

Dean grew up in a house where rugby was a big deal.

His father, Paul, played for Ireland 32 times in the 1980s – helping them to a Triple crown in 1985 – was a Lion in 1989, and later became Ireland’s team manager during the Joe Schmidt era, taking in the 2018 Grand Slam.

And yet, while there was family history in the game, Conor never felt any pressure.

“He has been great, he wouldn’t push me to do anything. He’s obviously there if I need anything but there was never any pressure. My parents went everywhere to watch me play and were just great support.”

conor-dean-scores-a-try Dean in action for the Ireland U20s in 2018. Source: INPHO

Dean shone for Blackrock College in his school days and then played for the Ireland U20s in 2017 and 2018, advancing into Leinster’s sub-academy and featuring for the province’s A team too.

But the pathway was busy with plenty of competition at out-half and Dean was told there wasn’t a spot for him in the full Leinster academy.

“It was disappointing because I had grown up playing Leinster U18s and 20s, it was obviously a goal to get in there,” he says.

Connacht academy manager Eric Elwood came in with an offer and Dean was excited to move west, with fellow Leinster sub-academy players Sean O’Brien [who is now with Exeter] and Jordan Duggan making the same move.

Dean loved living in Galway and learning from the likes of Elwood, Ambrose Conboy, and particularly Mossy Lawler in the Connacht academy.

“Mossy was unbelievable, his attention to detail. It’s no surprise he has gone up to the senior team this season. He had a great influence and sometimes you’d be dreading the reviews with him because of the minute detail he’d go into!”

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That first season with Connacht included a senior Pro14 debut against Munster in Thomond Park.

“I hadn’t really been expecting it because Kyle Godwin was due to play but pulled up during the week so I got my opportunity,” says Dean. “It was an experience I won’t forget.

“The whole family were down and it was great with the crowd and atmosphere, a special place to get your first cap.”

That debut came in Andy Friend’s first season in charge but opportunities dried up the following season as Dean advanced into the senior squad, with just one replacement appearance in the 2019/20 season and none in the 2020/21 campaign.

connachts-conor-dean Dean made two senior appearances for Connacht. Source: INPHO

“It was definitely frustrating,” says Dean. “In my final year, timing-wise with Covid we weren’t able to go and play club rugby, so if you weren’t in the first 23 and there weren’t any A games coming up, it was tough to get an opportunity to show what you could do.

“I picked up a niggle or two at bad times. I had been capped the first year so I was optimistic from the get-go but it was frustrating.

“It was a tough one, in fairness. I was living with a few lads who were in the same position and obviously everyone in a squad isn’t going to be happy, so there were people in the same spot.

“You talk to coaches, you’re patient. Jack Carty went into the Irish squad at one stage and I tore a ligament off my thumb the next week, so the timing worked against me. In fairness, Conor Fitzgerald and Jack Carty were having great seasons and Tom Daly was covering 10 so it was just frustrating. There are still great memories.”

Dean had a look around for other opportunities when Connacht told him he would be released last summer but then Woods came up with a different proposition and he’s on a new journey now.

Dean is still getting his rugby fix with Mary’s and he’s loving being back in the AIL.

“It’s a very young squad,” he explains, “I’m one of the oldest backs at 24. I know lots of the lads from playing there before.

“Sean Cronin [of Leinster] is actually coming in now, he’s doing the attack with us so it’s great to have his point of view on things. It’s a great set-up and it’s exciting times for the club.”

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Murray Kinsella

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