'He had something special about him' - James Cronin's rise to the Ireland squad

From Ballincollig to Highfield, and from Dolphin to Munster, the loosehead prop’s next stop is Argentina.

Cronin at Ireland training in the Aviva Stadium on Monday.
Cronin at Ireland training in the Aviva Stadium on Monday.
Image: Inpho/Billy Stickland

IF JAMES CRONIN makes his Ireland debut in Argentina next month, he will be in the unique position of having three Cork clubs cheering him on with deeply vested interests.

The 23-year-old’s route into the international squad is one less travelled, winding as it did through the youths system in Munster. More notably, Cronin’s path took him from home town club Ballincollig to Highfield, and then on to Dolphin.

Linking the loosehead prop’s stints at each club are stories of his determination to succeed, physicality on the pitch and quiet nature off it.

Michael McSwiney of Ballincollig RFC recalls bringing Cronin to the club for the first time at the age of eight, and immediately becoming aware of the youngster’s thirst for learning.

Alongside Kevin Kidney, the son of former Munster coach Declan, Cronin took to the sport with ease, despite his own family having no background in rugby.

He was a tough young fella, strong,” says McSwiney. “Kids at that age were only having fun but I’ll be honest with you, himself and Kevin, they actually listened. Other kids will just look at you, but James and Kevin were interested.

“You wouldn’t have said ‘he’ll play for Ireland’ straight away, but he was always listening. He was unique that way, and all the way through, himself and Kevin would have stood out.”

Munster's James Cronin Cronin made 10 starts for Munster over the course of this season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

One aspect of Cronin’s game that impressed for Munster this season was his sheer aggression, that edge he brings to tackles, carries and his rucking work. Again, there were signs of that characteristic in his earliest days at Ballincollig, as his late father, Dan, watched on with pride.

“Imagine when you’re looking at a guy who’s eight, and he was that determined back then,” continues McSwiney. ”I always admired fellas like that. He loved the rucking and mauling from the very start, even if he didn’t realise it was a maul at that stage!”

Martin Burke took over coaching responsibilities for Cronin as the prop moved up through Ballincollig’s age-grade teams, again recognising that there was something different about the player.

Cronin “loved the craic” and always trained with “a smile on his face,” but demonstrated the same mental attributes that have helped him to become a professional, even at U14 level.

He listened to what he was being told and watched intently,” says Burke. “If he had any questions he would always ask, or if he had a problem in his position he would seek the best solution.

“When it came to match day, he turned up with his game face on. He got his instructions and carried them out to the letter, always encouraging the other lads. The way he carried himself, you could see he had something.”

At the age of 17, Cronin made the move to Highfield RFC, whose youth teams have traditionally been strong and allowed the Ballincollig man to test his potential at a higher level.

James Cronin Cronin came off the bench in Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Coaching Highfield’s U18s at that time was Frank Cooper, who was enthused by what he saw in Cronin as soon as the prop had recovered from a torn cruciate ligament.

“Put it this way, he had something special about him. He was very physical and loved the contact. That has obviously brought him along hugely. He had something special that you can’t coach.

He was patient, and once the knee injury cleared up, he just took off. We had a very successful year, winning the All-Ireland U18 and doing a clean sweep in Munster.”

The following season, having represented Munster Youths, Cronin jumped directly into the Highfield’s senior squad, where he soon claimed a starting place in the All-Ireland League. That proved the ideal arena for the loosehead to improve his scrummaging skills.

Cooper has enjoyed following Cronin’s progress with Munster, recognising the elements that have been added to his game along the way.

“It was the sheer physicality that helped him stand out [at younger ages], but his ball handling and his skill set in the last two to three years when he’s been with Munster have been brought along totally. That aggression will always be there.”

Cooper cites the influence of Ken O’Connell as important to Cronin in his initial involvement with the Munster set-up, while James Coughlan is known to have been a steadying voice at Dolphin RFC.

Tom Daly and James Cronin Cronin in action for Dolphin against Lansdowne last season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Moving into the Munster Academy meant Cronin needed to be playing Division 1A rugby, which is exactly what Dolphin provided. Steve Forde, the club’s head coach, recognised the talent he had secured.

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“When he came to us for that first season in 1A, you could see it straight away. His scrum was solid, but he can handle a ball as well. Without the ball, he’s one of the most physical boys we’ve had.

“His work rate is like a back row at times. I always felt he had the ability to do what he’s done. I’m delighted for him, he’s a good friend of mine as well. Now he has to take the next step again and hopefully get the chance to play for his country.”

Forde explains that he had to work with Cronin on his discipline as the aggressive edge occasionally spilled over. That issue was maturely worked out and the Dolphin boss has only good things to say about the player.

He’s such a polite kid. His family are lovely people and his brother, Miah, plays for us as well. He’s down to earth and he’s always kept his head down and trained hard. Sometimes you have to pull him away from the gym, pull him away from doing the extra stuff. He’s got a really good work ethic.”

That Cronin is still a visitor to each of his former clubs speaks volumes of the man, with McSwiney pointing that “the well he hunts from is a good well.” Cronin still makes time to see his Ballincollig friends, and visits the club on family fun days.

“He’s gone on to play for Munster, and into an Ireland squad, but he’s still the same, still sees the same friends,” says McSwiney. “They haven’t lost him and he stays ordinary that way.”

James Cronin Cronin's ball-carrying has impressed for Munster this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Cooper outlines that Cronin remains a frequent supporter at Highfield’s Ulster Bank League games too, and even watches Junior fixtures when his ex-teammates are togging out.

“You’d see James at the games and then at one or two social events at the club. He’s always kept in contact and his presence has always been about.”

At Dolphin, this season saw Forde without Cronin’s services for all but one Ulster Bank League game, although that didn’t mean the Munster forward became a stranger.

“I’ve only had him once, up in Ballynahinch, but he’s always dropping his brother out to training and if you picked up the phone and asked him to be somewhere, he’d be there in the drop of a hat.

“He’s special James, and I think there’s more to come from him. He just needs that opportunity and he’ll surprise people.”

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Murray Kinsella

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