Jack Dunne during his time with Leinster. Ben Brady/INPHO
Irish Abroad

'It was between Connacht and Exeter. I always wanted to try living away'

Jack Dunne moved to Exeter in England after leaving Leinster last summer.

AFTER SIX YEARS of study, Jack Dunne is nearly finished his degree in Theoretical Physics at Trinity College. It’s been challenging to balance it with rugby, which has really taken off for him this season after a move from Leinster to English club Exeter.

The 24-year-old second row was back in Dublin recently for presentations on his thesis, all about German mathematician David Hilbert’s ’10th problem.’ Dunne does his best to explain it in basic terms but we’re already struggling at the mention of Diophantine equations.

There’s just one exam left and Dunne will have his qualification. He plans to take a complete break from study next season. His hope is to play pro rugby into his mid-30s so he’s not sure how he’ll put his Theoretical Physics degree into work thereafter.

One of the skills he’s gained from the study is problem-solving. In terms of his rugby career, the solution to finishing up with Leinster last summer was his move to the southwest of England. In this sense, he’s like many of his peers from Trinity.

“I almost have as many friends from that university group living in Brussels and Luxembourg as I do living in Dublin now, which is wild,” says Dunne as he remarks on how many of them have emigrated for work and cheaper rent.

He’s been up to London a bit, seeing more of his friends who are set up there, while life in Exeter has been enjoyable. The city is currently preparing itself for Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final against La Rochelle in Bordeaux.

“Exeter locals are all mad into rugby,” he says.

“In Dublin, unless you’re Johnny Sexton or someone, you don’t get stopped often but a few times in Exeter when I’m buying my shopping, people come up to say well done. There are flags everywhere, every business has a signed Exeter jersey.”

worcester-warriors-v-exeter-chiefs-gallagher-premiership-sixways-stadium Dunne in action for Exeter. PA PA

There were high hopes for Dunne in Leinster after he came through the St Michael’s College production line to impress for the Ireland U20s in 2018. At 6ft 8ins and 120kg, he’s a big, powerful athlete and the type of lock Irish rugby doesn’t have too many of.

He made his Leinster debut in 2019 but injuries slowed him up and he struggled to get any rhythm. Shoulder surgery, four months out, then Covid hit in 2020. Ankle injury, nearly seven months out, then Covid surged again. Even his surprise call-up to the Barbarians squad in November 2021 was ruined by Covid.

Dunne did move onto a senior contract in Leinster and played 20 times, including last season’s highly-enjoyable tour to South Africa, but it was tough to rack up the minutes he wanted.

“There are so many brilliant players in Leinster, it’s hard to get your way into the team and then you get a game every month or so and you haven’t played in a couple of months so you’re a bit rusty and it’s hard to do it,” says Dunne, who can call lineouts as well as bring his power around the pitch.

“It was obviously quite frustrating towards the end of it. When you’re in the academy, you’re happy just to be involved a couple of times a year whereas when you get into the senior squad, you want to be playing every week.”

Last season, he and his agent, Niall Woods, started to look at options elsewhere and Dunne says they’d been speaking to Exeter by the time Leinster let him know there wasn’t a contract extension there for him.

There was also the chance of a move to Connacht, with the IRFU keen to keep Dunne on Irish soil.

“They were telling me I wasn’t that far away from the Ireland squad but I hadn’t played for Leinster in nine months,” he says. “I just thought it was unlikely I would be in the World Cup squad, so I said I’d go away for a bit and see how I get on.

“It was between Connacht and Exeter. I always wanted to try living away somewhere and I thought Connacht wouldn’t be all that different from Dublin so I said I may as well try Exeter.”

There was also the fact that Dunne struggled to imagine himself playing for another province. He laughs when he sees people on Twitter suggesting that some of Leinster’s fringe players should just be moved to Munster, Ulster, or Connacht.

jack-dunne Dunne played for Leinster 20 times. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Dunne feels that the rivalry is as real as ever.

“I’d have friends in all the provinces who I get on with, but on the pitch, it’s like ‘I hate these guys.’

“I think the rivalry is really good because the inter-pros are always really high intensity. It doesn’t matter what team is put out, there’s always a really good energy about them.

“It’s good for Irish rugby because you can park it and in the Ireland squad they come together really well. But it’s definitely a big step moving between provinces.”

So off he went to Exeter last summer, getting through a “brutal” pre-season and making an excellent start to the campaign, which has been up-and-down for Rob Baxter’s side in the Premiership.

Dunne’s body “was falling apart” after he started three consecutive games in three weekends early this season because he simply hadn’t done that in Leinster, but he has adapted well and has made 22 appearances in all competitions, including 13 starts.

Among the highlights has been the Premiership Cup final win against London Irish last month, while he has played in the Champions Cup twice, making his debut in the competition against the Bulls in Pretoria.

“I’ve more caps here in one year than I did in four years in Leinster, and twice as many starts,” says Dunne. “It’s just great to be playing.”

Handily, he’s English-qualified which helps Exeter to hit their targets in that regard. Dunne was born in London when his parents, Joe and Olwyn, were over there for work but he definitely doesn’t see himself chasing international rugby in a white jersey.

“I have no interest in playing for England,” he says.

What about Ireland?

“I’d love to do it one day but it’s hard to say where my career will take me. You look at the Leinster squad at the minute and I don’t have interest in going back not to be playing.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow moving to another province because there’s so much rivalry so I think I’d have to put that behind me first. I’d love to play for Ireland but I don’t know if or when that would happen. We’ll see how I get on.”

jack-dunne-attempts-to-win-the-ball Dunne playing for the Ireland U20s in 2018. ©INPHO ©INPHO

Dunne signed a two-year contract with Exeter in 2022 so he will need to start considering the next step at some stage next season. The idea of staying where he is appeals to him but he will assess the options when the time comes.

He has enjoyed having his family and friends over to visit Exeter, with the busy schedule in English rugby meaning he hasn’t got home as much as he’d like.

He has two younger brothers, 22-year-old Luke and 20-year-old Max, who has been impressing in the AIL with Trinity and hopes to force his way into the Ireland U20 squad for the World Championships in June. Max is also a second row.

Dunne appreciates Exeter boss Baxter’s style of man management and focus on enjoying every single game, while the crop of fellow Irishmen around him has been helpful. Rory O’Loughlin moved over from Leinster at the same time, while Dunne played for the Ireland U20s with Munster-bound Sean O’Brien.

Then there are club legends Ian Whitten and Gareth Steenson, who now coaches as well as owning The Stand-Off, his popular Irish bar.

“It does the best pint of Guinness in Exeter, which isn’t hard to be fair,” says Dunne. “There’s some dreadful pints going.”

Dunne lives around 10 minutes from Sandy Park in a new estate where three of the club’s coaches are also based, meaning “no parties for me!”

The Irish lock has impressed with his rugby ability, while he has also attracted some media coverage in the UK for the fact that he came out publicly as bisexual in 2021.

Dunne’s Leinster team-mates had known for several years, but he made the decision to speak about it in the media because he hoped to be a role model for young people who were possibly struggling.

jack-dunne Dunne pictured last year supporting LGBTQ+ charity Belong To. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“I always get the odd message from someone saying thanks because they’re 14 or 15 and play rugby and found it great to see someone like that,” he says of the ongoing reaction.

“Because when I was 15 or 16, if I had seen someone out playing professionally, it would have made my life easier. I didn’t know if I could come out to my rugby circle because there were no professional players who were out. If I’ve helped a few people, that’s great and I’m very glad I did it.”

Dunne is hoping Exeter can overcome the might of La Rochelle this weekend to potentially set-up a final against Leinster in Dublin next month, while there’s only one Premiership game left. Sixth-placed Exeter are out of the play-off race there.

With five or six weeks off for summer, Dunne will be heading to Uruguay and Argentina with a friend who is travelling “off the beaten path” in South America. Adventure awaits.

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