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'It was unexpected, I didn't think I was going to be let go but that's just sport'

28-year-old Eoin McKeon’s time with Connacht is over after 137 appearances for his native province.

LAST FRIDAY, THE Connacht squad and management jumped on a Zoom call to have a few beers and bid farewell to the departing players.

There were video highlight reels and some nice words shared as the 12 men confirmed to be leaving the province this month said their goodbyes.

There has been talk of doing something official at a home Connacht game next season, but this was essentially it for the players whose time with Andy Friend’s squad is up.

28-year-old Eoin McKeon is one of them, the back row being released after 137 appearances for his native province over the past decade. Just like that, he’s an ex-Connacht player.

eoin-mckeon-celebrates McKeon celebrates Connacht's Pro12 title success in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

McKeon has been training away in lockdown for the last three months but he’s been looking to the future too. Right now, he’s unsure if that will be in professional rugby. The circumstances of his departure from Connacht left him in a tricky spot.

Back in December, McKeon got an indication from the province that he would be all good for a contract extension into 2020/21.

“It wasn’t an official offer but I was told there was going to be a contract there,” explains McKeon.

But circumstances changed and McKeon found himself in limbo.

“There were a couple of players whose contracts didn’t go Connacht’s way, a couple of players leaving, and it just changed the dynamic for what they wanted to do with the squad.

“That didn’t bode favourably for me. After Christmas, I was in a grey area, a 50/50 zone on whether I’d be kept on or not. 

“It was the first time where I felt like I didn’t have any control over my career. I was having consistent chats with Friendy, wondering what I could do. To be fair to Friendy, he tried to be as transparent as possible and he didn’t know what was happening either.”

Things dragged on for a few months, a stressful period for McKeon, who just wanted a final answer. So in mid-March, he asked for another meeting with Friend and pushed for a sense of certainty.

“I said, ‘Look, it’s not looking like I’m going to be here, so let’s just say we cut it now. I’d rather know now than wait another month or whatever it was going to be to find out that I’m not going to be here.’”

And that was that. The really unfortunate thing was that Covid-19 was becoming a reality in our lives at that stage. Rugby was put on hold. Clubs weren’t looking to add players, rather shed them. Pay cuts were widespread. So the timing wasn’t great to be looking for something new.

eoin-mckeon-celebrates McKeon with the Pro12 trophy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Looking back, McKeon sees a lesson in simply accepting the positive feedback from Connacht about a contract extension back in December. He wonders if he should have had a glance elsewhere at that stage.

“I didn’t go actively looking,” says McKeon. “You can’t be too loyal to any club for obvious reasons because at the end of the day it’s a professional game and it’s a business. That’s how you’ve got to treat it.

“That’s advice for any younger player. As loyal as I was to the club, they’re quick to throw that loyalty card out there but they’re quick to pull it away as well when the contract’s not on the table. I definitely wouldn’t have all your cards in one club.

“It’s strange because you don’t want to go looking to other clubs just to boost your deal so there’s a fine line there between seeing what’s happening and looking for an offer knowing you won’t take it.

“If I had known the situation was going to pan out this way, I would have actively gone seeking opportunities so it didn’t end up this way but it is what it is, and I just have to deal with it.”

And that’s what McKeon is doing. He says he spent 24 hours dwelling on the disappointment of having to leave his home province, then got over it. There is absolutely no sense of bitterness from the Galway man.

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“I just put my focus on thinking about what my options are if nothing happens with rugby.”

McKeon is in the final sprint of a master’s degree in business administration and management, which he’s been studying through Griffith College since 2018 and will conclude with three exams in August.

He has interest in the tech sector and has visited companies like Microsoft, LinkedIn, Google before to get a feel for that industry. Having also worked with Rugby Players Ireland since 2014 and spent the last three years on its executive board, McKeon certainly hasn’t been blind to life outside the professional game.

He remains open-minded about opportunities that might spring up in rugby as the sport resumes, but if this is to be the end of his playing career he’s already at peace with it.

There is plenty to be proud of. McKeon came through The Jes and Galwegians, playing for the Ireland U20s in 2011 and earning a Connacht academy spot.

eoin-mckeon McKeon pictured in action for Connacht in 2011. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Former forwards coach Dan McFarland was central to his development early on, helping McKeon to understand what was required from a pro: “He put me in some pretty uncomfortable positions to get the best out of me as a player.”

There were Emerging Ireland and Wolfhounds appearances for McKeon, while the three-year journey under Pat Lam towards Connacht’s Pro12 success in 2016 was an obvious highlight. McKeon was a key figure throughout that time, starting the semi-final against Glasgow and the final win over Leinster as it culminated in glory. 

“It wasn’t just on the pitch stuff, it was off the pitch too, how we carried ourselves,” sas McKeon of what he learned. “Little things like making sure your locker was clean at the end of the day, picking up after people, driving those standards.

“That all filtered through into games, performances, how we carried ourselves when we were in work. That was one of the major things that led to consistency in performances.

“Any team can have one-off big wins but to have consistency, you have to have a level of discomfort around training because it brings the best out of people.

“That was one thing I remember from those years – having the pressure on in training. It meant that when we came to games and were under the pump, it didn’t seem as bad because we had such a standard around training, we were able to cope quite well.”

The Kieran Keane appointment for 2017/18 didn’t work out for Connacht – though McKeon played some excellent rugby that season – and then the back row missed most of the first half of Friend’s maiden season in charge through injury.

He returned to reclaim his starting spot, however, and ended the campaign by extending his contract.

“I decided last year to sign just a one-year contract, I backed myself,” says McKeon. “I suppose in hindsight, it probably didn’t work out the best. I was banking on getting another two-year contract but it didn’t play out that way and now I’m finishing up.

“It was unexpected, I didn’t think I was going to be let go but that’s just sport and the ruthless nature of rugby, unfortunately. You never know what’s going to come. I thought I was going to be with Connacht for another few years but it didn’t turn out that way.

eoin-mckeon-celebrates McKeon is looking forward to a new challenge. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’ve gone through some tough years with Connacht and some good years with Connacht. It’s definitely been a journey and something I’ll always cherish. I’m glad to have been part of the transition from being one of the lower-seeded teams to actually winning something. It’s interesting to be at both ends of the spectrum.”

Now it’s onto the next challenge for McKeon, whether or not a rugby offer pops up from the UK, France, or perhaps even the US in the coming months. His time with Connacht might have ended oddly in lockdown but he’s not losing any sleep over it.

“There’s no point in stressing about it and dwelling on it,” says McKeon. “There are people in far worse situations than me, I’m thankful for the situation I’m in.

“No one in my family has been affected by Covid or anything like that, so it really isn’t too bad. I’m looking forward to whatever the next chapter is.”

Originally published at 19.30

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Murray Kinsella

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