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From gym salesman to Champions Cup star - rugby's Rocky story

Darragh Fanning went from selling gym equipment to getting called up by Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in a whirlwind year.

Darragh Fanning lived the Leinster dream.
Darragh Fanning lived the Leinster dream.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

RUSH HOUR IN Dublin and the city centre traffic has stalled. A driver is frustrated and not just by the noise of his engine grunting as a few sluggish metres chug by. He looks up at the lights, sees they are stuck on red and knows it is the perfect metaphor for his rugby career.

A year earlier, things couldn’t have felt any better. In the build-up to the November series, Joe Schmidt called to say he was on the radar. That weekend he stayed on it, scoring twice against Wasps in Europe. After impressing the following Sunday against Castres, Matt O’Connor tapped him on the shoulder.

“You’ve to report into Ireland camp, tomorrow. Well done!”

He was on his way. Three days training with Ireland exposed him to Schmidt’s work, the minute attention to detail; the confident, demanding delivery that filled a room. “I’d only ever known Joe up to that point as this funny guy who I’d meet in and around rugby matches or events. Now I was seeing him in action and he was unreal. It was brilliant being a part of that.”

Thirteen months is a long time in rugby. A star who was on the rise was now unseen. He’d played the first game of that 2015/16 season against Edinburgh and was then handed a bib for training.

Weeks passed. Others got their chance. He kept being handed that bib, a worrying sign for any player. “There were training sessions when they would stick an academy centre on the wing if someone went down injured rather than me. Mentally those weeks were crushing.”

darragh-fanning Darragh Fanning wears the dreaded bib. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He remembers thinking, ‘I don’t know what is going on here?’ But he made a pact to stay positive. Happy-go-lucky by nature, he made a conscious effort not ‘to be a dickhead in training’.

“I’m a Leinster fan,” our driver says. “I wanted them to win. I was still helping the team to prepare but there was only so much I could do. Then Leinster approached me in November to see if I was interested in leaving and I just said no, I’d started a business, I was happy, settled in Dublin.

“I said to them, I’ve only ever wanted to play rugby for St Mary’s, Leinster and Ireland. By then I’d done two of those and the third had ceased to be an option. I wasn’t leaving. End of.”

Then just before Christmas, came an early present. He was out of the bib and lining out with the prospective starting XV. “I played well that day in training.”

Ben Te’o thought so too, loudly joking when Mick Dawson, the Leinster chief executive, passed by. “Mick is heading upstairs to write you out a new contract,” Te’o laughed. “We had so many injuries. I remember thinking, ‘unless they pick Ronan O’Donnell (Leinster’s logistics manager)’, I’m in there.”

O’Donnell didn’t make it. But nor did our commuter.

It is a Tuesday evening now, rush hour in Dublin. Our driver collects his girlfriend from work when Leo Cullen rings to say he won’t be starting that Friday’s game against Dragons. In fact, he won’t even be in the travelling squad heading across to Wales. There’s no point arguing these things.

I knew that was it. At that point, if they weren’t going to pick me that week, they never were. I burst out crying.”

Welcome to the world of professional sport. This is how it ends, by the side of a road as the traffic crawls by and the Christmas shoppers struggle home with their bags. Anyone who thinks professional rugby isn’t a cruel game, well they need to think again.

**

Darragh Fanning – that driver stuck in traffic – doesn’t want anyone’s sympathy. “My career was a rollercoaster and I was happy to ride it,” he says. If the way the rollercoaster ended for him was sudden, well the beginning was just as unexpected.

His route to the top wasn’t the traditional one. Academy rugby passed him by, the AIL proving to be his finishing school. He was trucking along nicely there, making his way in the nine-to-five world; getting a few quid in his pocket and a few beers after St Mary’s matches at the weekend, when Connacht called. A contract was on the table. One year, €15,000.

darragh-fanning-gets-past-john-cooney Fanning playing for Connacht in 2010. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was like winning the lotto,” Fanning says.

He started well, got eight games under his belt before Christmas when his appendix burst. Out for three months, by the time he’d recovered, he couldn’t get his place back. Still, he was told that he was going to be kept on, until a budgetary adjustment led to three contracts – including Fanning’s – being withdrawn. The deal was for €35,000. “You don’t play rugby for the money. It was more a case of wondering where it could have taken you.”

The bad news was delivered on a Tuesday night. By the Thursday he was on the plane to Australia, signing for Canberra Vikings, still a full-time player. “The worst thing would have been to hang around, listen to questions, ‘what happened? Why aren’t you playing?’” The only question he asked that weekend was where was good for lunch. We’ll come back to that later.

The Vikings experience went well, so well that by the time he was heading back home, Dan McKellar, now head coach of the Brumbies, told him he’d make contact with mates of his coaching in Italy and the English championship. It was 2013. Leinster were about to win their fourth trophy in three years under Joe Schmidt. “Surely a club in Ireland might look at you,” McKellar asked.

Fanning laughed. “I was 26 at the time. If Connacht didn’t want me, there wasn’t a chance of Leinster being keen.”

He was quickly proven wrong. Unbeknownst to him, Fanning was already filed away in Schmidt’s memory cabinet when he went to see him play for St Mary’s against Garryowen in the AIL. Fionn Carr and Andrew Conway were leaving the RDS. A wing vacancy needed filling and Schmidt arranged for Fanning to play against Ulster A. The possibilities were growing. Then Schmidt got the Ireland job. “And I thought that was that. It was a nice pipedream. I’ll move on.”

leinsters-darragh-fanning Fanning in action against Munster's Zebo. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

That July he went across to Muirfield to watch the 2013 Open Championship. On the Friday, as Miguel Angel Jimenez moved to the top of the leaderboard, Guy Easterby – Leinster’s head of operations – called. They met three days later and for the second time in his professional life, Fanning walked out of a secure nine-to-five job to hop on a magic carpet ride. “It was just a six-week trial. I was happy to just get a bit of few gear.”

He’d get more than that. After watching the Lions play that summer, he ended up playing against George North just a couple of months later. Matt O’Connor – Schmidt’s successor – rated him and so the six-week deal quickly became a three-month one. It was like a Rocky story told in a south Dublin accent, Fanning walking into the dressing room only to find that all the lockers were already taken.

“Do you mind getting changed with the academy lads?” He was 26. They were 18. “Sure, no problem.”

Nothing seemed to be problematic. North knocked him down but he got back up. Christian Wade was fast. But he kept chasing him, ending up scoring two tries against Wade’s Wasps. Three months became a two-year deal. “The biggest kick I got out of the whole Leinster thing was that – because it came so late for me – everyone (friends, family, team-mates at St Mary’s) just seemed to get so much joy out of it.”

He was in his mid-20s but taking baby steps. A pre-season appearance; then selection for a Pro14 game; then a date in the Aviva against Munster, then the Champions Cup.

“It was surreal.” And nothing seemed stranger than the first day Brian O’Driscoll and the Lions contingent returned to training. By now, Fanning was settled. Or so he thought. A training drill went wrong; Fanning switching off when partnered by O’Driscoll.

He literally screamed his head off me. I remember being in shock and then sort of thinking for a split second, ‘this is hilarious, Brian O’Driscoll has just given out to me!’”

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He wore it as a badge of honour.  “I never had any sleepless nights wondering whether I fitted in or not. I always enjoyed the opportunity, the big crowd. I’m a bit of a show off; I always backed myself to do well.”

That belief, he noted, was the difference between so many players, those who made it, those who didn’t. He was an eyewitness to a young Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Tadhg Furlong, playing in illustrious surroundings like the wonderfully named Pandy Park.

“A few of them, you just know it’s going to happen for them. Confidence oozed out of them. Josh, I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by the heights he’s reached but because he’s a really quiet guy – he does things that a few others – had they had his ability, would have shouted about. He always had an incredible work rate.”

So had Fanning. Schmidt called again, initially to tell him he wouldn’t be in the Ireland squad, speaking for just a few minutes, then quizzing Fanning about an incident in a Scarlets game,14 months earlier. “I was like, how did he remember that?”

The week of the South Africa game in November 2014, Schmidt was asking more questions, Fanning in camp, noting how more intense things were, how players used their free time to swot up on opposing players. “You are a bit awestruck, getting all the gear with DF embroidered on it.”

darragh-fanning Fanning in his Ireland gear in 2014. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

As we know the Ireland cap never came but there are no regrets, no bitterness. “I don’t look back and think I was unlucky not to be capped. Far from it.”

If you’re wondering where this sense of perspective comes from, well it’s partly in his genes, part of growing up.

That restaurant he went to on his first weekend in Australia was Zambrero, a Mexican food chain run by an Australian businessman with a conscience. In 15 years, they have donated 45 million free meals to disadvantaged children in the third world. Fanning has been there, handing out the meals in a South African shanty town, his carrot red hair a source of fascination to the local children.

So he knows the true definition of bad luck and it isn’t being born in a safe democracy with plenty of work opportunities. The key is making the most of those, the advice Simon Keogh, in Rugby Players Ireland, gave him.

And that was why, when it came to the end at Leinster, he didn’t look at trekking around the championship for a few years. “I’d done the hard yards.”

Instead he opened a restaurant within weeks of his father – former Leinster captain, Declan Fanning – negotiating a settlement with Dawson. “I didn’t have time to dwell on things. Hope was fading fast on the rugby field. You have to move on and move quickly.”

He did. Four weeks after retiring, he opened his first restaurant. He now has 10 – all part of the Zambrero chain. “Regrets?” he is asked. “None. Remember that I got to ride that rollercoaster when I didn’t even have a ticket, never mind a place in the queue. It was fun.”

 

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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