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Stress, anguish, pride, hurt, fear - what it's really like to be a professional rugby player

Conor Gilsenan opens his heart and spells out the reality of dressing room life.

Conor Gilsenan is London Irish's second longest serving player.
Conor Gilsenan is London Irish's second longest serving player.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

CONOR GILSENAN IS back where it all began. There’s a line in his story where he waves Niall Horan off to his X-Factor audition in 2010, clapping his lifelong friend on the back and joking how next time they’ll meet, Horan will be headlining the O2 in London.

But that’s really nothing more than a footnote.

Then there’s the tale about Joe Schmidt reconnecting with old friends and bringing the Six Nations trophy down to his father’s pub in Mullingar for a beer and a nostalgic round of remember-whens.

But this isn’t about Schmidt, either.

No, this is a story of what “a dream job” is really like; the pressure, the suffering, the anguish, the joy, the pride, the hurt, the fear. It’s not that Conor Gilsenan wants your pity. Time after time, sentence after sentence, he repeats the line. “This is what I want to do.”

He opens the door of the London Irish dressing room and opens a window to his heart. The problem isn’t that he hates his job. The issue is he loves it too much.

“What if it’s taken away?” he asked himself last April. Megan, his girlfriend, had just moved across from Dublin, landing a plum job in the City. Yet here he was, approaching the final weeks of his contract, “staring down the barrel” of misfortune. “That was scary, that sense of unknown, of stepping away from a job I love, leaving all my team-mates behind, no longer being part of something really special.

a-dejected-conor-gilsenan Gilsenan has been relegated twice in his six-year spell with London Irish. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I was thinking, London’s an expensive city, I can’t afford to hang out here. I need to get back to Mullingar, sort myself out, figure out a plan. Stress. That’s the word. When your contract is nearly up, it’s the only thing you think about.”

Right across Europe right now, a couple of hundred players will join him in this sporting purgatory, January the month when budgets are set, deals done. Unless, that is, you’re Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell. November is when the poster boys get sorted; January when the majority queue at rugby’s pearly gates. Last year St Peter didn’t give Gilsenan the nod until the final week of the season.

“I think about it (the future) non-stop,” the London Irish flanker said. “It is probably what I worry about most in life. It’s just daunting, you are in a job you love doing, one you are passionate about, scared you might not find something as good as this in any other walk of life.”

There’s a context needed here. Gilsenan’s no fool; he has a masters tucked away, has spent the last 18 months developing his own business, a tech start-up. As a youngster he was a precocious talent, capped by Ireland at Under 18 and Under 20 level, taken into the Leinster academy in the same year as Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and Luke McGrath.

Even when Leinster let him go, it wasn’t long before he recovered “from the devastation”. Connacht were interested but London Irish were adamant. “It was a no brainer to come here,” he says. That was six years, six head coaches, two relegations and two promotions ago. “Only one player has been here longer than me,” he says. “The players who were at this club in my first year, if they came back here now, they’d struggle to recognise more than two or three faces.”

He lists the talent London Irish have lost over the years: Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, the Armitage brothers, Tom Homer, Matt Garvey, Joe Cokanasiga, Jamie Gibson, Alex Corbisiero and Max Lahiff and wonders where Irish would be if they’d have all hung around. “A drain of talent,” he says, mindful of the two years they dropped down to the Championship. “Relegation seasons are savage. Walking into training back then, the pressure was on, everyone visually stressed. You could see it in the coach’s eyes. The guys who weren’t playing ….. it became quite splintered. You knew people’s jobs were at risk. It wasn’t pleasant.”

anthony-watson Anthony Watson is one of several key players to have moved on from London Irish this decade. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It is now, though. Again Irish are in a relegation battle but even so there’s still an energy and synergy about the place. “We call ourselves a bunch of misfits because we come from different parts of the world,” Gilsenan said. “The majority of the guys in the changing room have gone through something similar to me, turned away from a club, London Irish becoming our adopted home. We’re tight-knit; we certainly don’t do things in an orthodox way.

“When we get it right – beating Wasps away the first game of the season, almost beating Sarries on their home patch – it’s great. Then there are bad days like Bath last month. We’re striving for consistency and a reason for that is because there are so many of us meshed together. That’s going to take time.”

Time is ticking away, though. He’s 27, young enough to get a wage from this game for another six years, but conscious there are no guarantees he will. This is where the dreamer and the realist meet. He tells you about his 14th birthday, sitting down at his desk at home, penning the equivalent of a teenager’s letter to Santa. “I want to be a professional rugby player,” he wrote.

He wouldn’t have been the only kid to write or think something like that but the difference is he got there.

The boy is all grown up now, sporting a beard, shouting a hello to an old friend at the hotel we meet in, making plans for the sporting afterlife, but refusing to throw away that 13-year-old piece of paper. “I remember reading an interview with John Muldoon,” he says, “being told how he was nearly let go by Connacht at one stage, yet he stuck with it; refusing to give in. He fought and he fought and he fought and eventually he got there. There’s something powerful about that thought; the idea it could happen to you. That’s what we’re all searching for.”

And that’s professionalism summed up in a tiny little sentence. Theirs is a world of constantly chasing something intangible, a place where even the perfect days are imperfect. He takes you into the London Irish dressing room for a minute, talks you through a 37-point victory over Stade Francais in 2017, a win that ended a seven-game losing streak.

He tells you about this song they sing, the one borrowed and reworded from Millwall’s terraces. “We’re Irish, we’re Irish; and that’s the way we like it, we like it; oh, oh, oh woooooooooooh”. Suddenly he’s animated, his eyes widening as he recalls the beers the team drank when they beat Ealing last year to win the Championship, the sing-songs they had on pre-season bus trips, the hugs he’s shared with team-mates after big wins.

Yet it’s never enough. “It can’t be,” he says. “Unless there is a cup handed out to you, it can’t be a massive celebration. You can’t jump around and act like you’ve won the league because of one good performance.

Often the nights of matches are huge anti-climaxes. It’s a case of get home; get the right food in, move on to the next job. We’d that big win over Wasps. There’s joy at the final whistle, then there’s reality. We were all on the bus, on the recovering pumps. We’d a six-day turnaround. You’re immediately looking forward.”

There’s something wrong and something sad about this, how a game that kids played for enjoyment has ended up being so serious. But this is what it’s like to be a professional in today’s world. “I’ve been doing it for eight years and I still get incredibly nervous the day before games. It’s silly, I know, but you just don’t want to let your team mates down. I don’t want to make mistakes rather than go out and just express yourself and excel.”

To get away from the stress of it all, he often hooks up in London with his old buddies from Mullingar, guys who – with one notable exception – go to work with a shirt and tie around their neck.

“Yeah they’re in all property, sports management, banking, tech, and eh, rock and roll.”

That’s Horan, the little fella he’s been running around with since they were seven-years-old.

Both took the same road, leaving Mullingar for London, dreams in their heads, nothing much in their pockets and even if their paths diverged at one point, in truth they’ve re-joined. “I love what I do; I want to make that point,” Gilsenan said. “No one forced me to do this. This is what I’ve always wanted. ……. what you don’t want is for it to ever end.”

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