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'Very driven, very focused. He’ll go a long way': U20 star Crowley earning extra attention

The Ireland U20 out-half has mental steel as a foundation for his impressive skills.

THE MAN IN the black coat makes his way down the steps of the stand.

He’s a busy man with a lot on his plate, but patience is required to reach pitch level. He moves gingerly in among the clump of small bodies, waiting for them to disperse. His wizened face is recognisable, but the horde of kids gathered in the aisle won’t bat an eyelid his way.

They have been flicking their gaze from the designated photographer to the focus, their heads crane upwards in adoration to the the bright, smiling man in green.

jack-crowley-and-david-mccann Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Jack Crowley stands with his arms spread wide and low to frame the group and laughs as they roar out “Bandon” to greet the flash.

He is still decked out in shorts and a cherished jersey after he kicked 11 points in the U20 Six Nations win over Wales, the cooling Cork night is almost ignored. His next port of call is family and the crowd around him begins to drift in different directions.

The man in black slips on by without anyone in the group noticing. His name is David Nucifora. With more progress and little luck, Crowley may well have reason grab him for a chat in the years ahead.

***

‘I know that face,’ said Ronan O’Gara as he watched a clip of a sensational solo try on his phone seven days earlier.

Round two against Wales brought out examples of Crowley’s ability to do the nuts and bolts, showing off a beautiful strike off the tee and touch-finders from hand alike. The latter putting his pack in prime position to pressure Wales from both restarts and open play. Round one was unquestionably about his running threat.

O’Gara’s memory was jogged by Crowley’s breath-taking sprint for the try-line, bookended by smart side-steps and a big fend, in the win over Scotland. The La Rochelle boss had met the newly-signed Cork Con man in August and offered affirmations of sorts as Crowley faced into a new season looking to make his name and get his game with Munster A and Con.

“Jesus, what a hope for Irish rugby,” O’Gara continued with that try still replaying in his head.

It was kind of that big a moment. It wasn’t just ‘that’s good for U20s’. I was like ‘who’s this guy?’”

Crowley is a highly-skilled, highly-motivated and driven 20-year-old. He sees his future  firmly in the number 10 shirt, though his solid frame and athleticism left him in line for minutes as a fullback with Munster A as the season kicked off. As Rog recalls it, the newly-signed Cork Con man was a tad concerned by his deployment as a utility back when they met in August.

The haze of summer is long gone, but Crowley is on a hot streak as he strolls in to field queries from the media in Cork this week. He stands tall, shakes hands firmly and fixes eye contact as he delivers his answers.

So, about that meeting with O’Gara.

“I spoke to him about more 10-specific stuff, in terms of kicking,” says the young out-half.

“Obviously, he’s kicked in high-pressure games and stuff. His mentality going into games and how he prepared. It was obviously unbelievable to talk to someone of his calibre and he’s a coach now so he has a different aspect of the game as well as just being a player. It was really beneficial.”

Crowley sounds more content now to pick up match minutes in a role away from the cockpit, citing Beauden Barrett as the best example of how an out-half can thrive and continue learning from a different angle of how the play unfolds.

Even the masters of out-half play need some sort of bedding in time before taking on the full responsibility of a 10 shirt,

“Ronan would have been in the same boat. I had him in first year in UCC and we played him in the centre,” notes Brian Hickey, director of rugby with Cork Con.

Con already counted Billy Crowley among their back three ranks, so it was natural for Jack to follow his big brother up Temple Hill once he left school last summer.

AIL clubs know full well that academy prospects are not going to be available to them day-in, day-out, but the reigning champions were keen on bringing Crowley’s skills in to complement first-choice out-half Aidan Moynihan.

As ever in rugby, one player’s painful misfortune is another’s chance to stake a claim.

“I wasn’t expecting to be starting 10 anyway,” Crowley says, “you have to fight for a place. So, if I went to Con with Aidan at 10, I knew I could learn off him, starting or not. And that competition between the two of us would push each other along.”

That was the plan. Unfortunately for Moynihan, Crowley was nudged onto a faster track.

jack-crowley Mucking in; Crowley on duty with Cork Con in November. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“My first game was AIL 3 and Aidan, in the first five minutes, broke his ankle. Really unlucky, one of those things. I’ve got my opportunity through that.”

Wearing the red of Munster is clearly a step towards where Crowley wants to be. But, as Ireland coach Noel McNamara has said this month, there is no serious substitute for playing regular, competitive matches when it comes to bringing players to the next stage of development.

Playing with and against grown men has been key in accelerating Crowley’s progress.

“They’re very close,” says Hickey when The42 suggests that better-conditioned schoolboys are now frequently ready for senior rugby before they get the Leaving Cert results.

“I don’t think you can substitute the week-in, week-out grind, the toll it’s going to take over a few weeks at that level. In terms of physical development, I’d say they’re a lot more ready than they would have been even up to five years ago.”‘

The new kid at the club heartily agrees:

“It was unbelievable learning. As a 10, game-time is everything and through Aidan being unlucky with injury it’s helped me really push on in terms of game management and getting those wins when it is a tight match and poor weather.”

There were certainly testing elements and opposition in place for Crowley when he set out for training with his Ireland U20 team-mates. Andy Farrell’s team had decamped to Cork and, as has become tradition, thrust themselves into a hit-out against the young up-and-comers.

jack-crowley Crowley kicks at Musgrave Park on Thursday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The session was closed on this occasion after a hasty relocation from CIT to Musgrave Park, but Crowley’s mind was opened wide by being placed in direct opposition to Jonathan Sexton, with the likes of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls to navigate his kicks around in the back field.

“Massive learning,” the U20 star says with an enthusiastic nod.

“Coming up against Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne. Even talking to them, understanding learnings from them, it’s just an unbelievable competitive atmosphere. You’re training against Irish seniors and you can learn so much from them. By doing that, you can have the highest standards.”

Crowley has made a habit of causing people to sit up and take notice of his own high standards. Even before people like O’Gara could exclaim at his physique, he had stature. He started on Bandon Grammar School’s senior side for three years running, called in first as a scrum-half under current Toulouse coach Regis Sonnes before moving to 10 last year.

“He was small when he came through,” Denis Collins, a coach with Bandon Grammar, tells The42.

He was a fourth year year when he started with the seniors, and he was small enough even as a 9. He was never afraid of it. Up to the challenge. Put himself forward as a leader even as a fourth year.”

Crowley’s time as a schoolboy was not adorned with silverware, but there were landmark feats as the West Cork club forced their way to the semi-final stage of the Munster Senior Cup for a first and second ever time. They found a knack of beating some of the old guard, but PBC thwarted their final hopes in both 2017 and 2019.

It wasn’t for the want of motivation within their talented half-back.

“It was just his drive for the whole thing,” adds Collins when considering what set Crowley apart.

“He had the x-factor. Great work ethic, worked hard at whatever he needed to work on. We’re thrilled for him.

“He always practiced his skills. He started with us as a 9 when he came into the senior setup. Pass-catch, box kicks… he worked really hard on all his core skills. 

“He’d often stay back to do extras, conditioning, whatever he needed to improve his game. He’s a great listener as well, he’d take on board what all coaches said to him and he’d work on whatever he needed to work on.

Always worked hard and got the respect of the others. In his game now, especially playing 10, his communication would be very good. Very driven and very focused. He’ll go a long way.”

“He was pushing lads around him to be better, to improve. His mental strength is probably one of the strongest things about him. He has the skills and all that, but to improve you’ve got to be mentally strong.

“He was a leader from the front. When we were in trouble, we’d be looking to Jack and more often than not he came up trumps.”

The same bullish approach to what some might consider a daunting challenge also coloured Crowley’s early days with Con.

From school to club and now age grade internationals, the Corkman can make it seem as though he’s just smoothly moving through the gears.

“Stepping into quite a senior side he’s certainly not fazed by the whole thing, which I think is an important attribute in a 10,” says Hickey.

“A lot of lads would feel their way into that sort of scenario, but almost from the first game. He very much grabbed it by the scruff of the neck – that was impressive, really – I wouldb’t have expected anything less. When you’re talking to him he’s very forthright and ambitious anyway. I think he has a good grasp of what’s required.”

Clearly, grasping what is required and fulfilling it remain two quite distinct things for a would-be professional athlete. And lest we tumble down the rabbit hole of premature projections of how high Crowley’s ceiling may be, it’s worth stating the obvious: that no U20 international is the complete package.

In his two Six Nations outings this month, Crowley has been able to showcase his lovely strike off the tee, a potent running threat and some excellent touch-finding kicks from hand. But overall game management and the business of marshaling an attack will always present room for improvement.

jack-crowley-leads-the-team-to-the-field Crowley runs out for Munster A this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Munster senior coach Stephen Larkham this week fielded questions on the U20 star and was preaching patience over Crowley. He wasn’t in Ireland last year when Ben Healy and Jake Flannery were making their name on national TV as U20s, but they are a year ahead in their development now and working closely with the Wallaby great.

“He has had two good performances now. I think to prove you are a great player you need to do that over time and all the markings are there that he is going to do that,” said Larkham.

The time for a third strong outing will come next Friday when McNamara’s U20s pitch up in Northampton to face England for the fourth time just over a year. The 2019 crop left a considerable legacy to follow, winning two and losing a third meeting with England to an 80th-minute try.

And yet with new personnel and home advantage tilted against Ireland, they will have to prove themselves all over again after opening the Championship with back-to-back bonus point wins on home turf.

Still, McNamara’s side have consistently turned talk of opposition back to a focus on their own game, their own preparations. And after revelling in the hit-out against Ireland seniors, the U20s aren’t willing to be overawed meeting their English peers.

“We have a thing in the 20s,” Crowley says, “that we respect all, but we fear no-one.

jack-crowley Crowley in training against Ireland seniors this week. Source: INPHO

“And I think that’s what we’ve shown over the last few weeks. Even coming up against the seniors – obviously it’s an unbelievable opportunity to come up against these fellas who ideally would be your peers but once you go out on the pitch you kind of almost forget.

“Even with the Six Nations, you almost forget that you’re playing a Six Nations game, you’re just playing another game of rugby. You kind of go into a little bubble and you’re just playing your game and it’s only after the game really, or even after the training session today or maybe later on in the week that you realise that you were training with the seniors.

“I mean, that’s kind of the benefit of playing in such a big bunch of lads, that it almost normalises it, because our standards are so high and we expect so much of ourselves that when we do get an opportunity to train with the seniors you don’t get dulled by it or amazed by it.

“You have a job to do and you’re there for a reason as well, as a team.”

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Sean Farrell

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