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'There's a World Cup next year. I still have ambitions to play for Ireland'

James Cronin has made a superb start to life with Leicester but his exit from Munster hurt.

Ex-Munster man James Cronin is now with Leicester.
Ex-Munster man James Cronin is now with Leicester.
Image: Inpho/Billy Stickland

THERE IS NO bitterness there. James Cronin is still a Munster supporter, always will be. Some of his best friends are part of the squad. He wants Munster to win every weekend, unless they come across Leicester.

And Cronin has found a true home away from home with the Tigers, having joined the Premiership champions during the summer. The Cork man came in to replace Ellis Genge and has started the season superbly. He loves it – the demanding standards, the world-class coaching, the pride in scrum and maul, everything about it.

31-year-old Cronin is in a happy place, but he’s honest enough to admit he was hurt by how it ended with Munster in 2021. No contract offer, even after a season in which he was one of the province’s best players and started the Pro14 final. He found out late in the campaign too, despite initial suggestions that there might be a new deal.

It never transpired and that was it. 143 Munster caps and out.

“I was gutted,” says loosehead prop Cronin. “It’s my home club. I was willing to take a pay cut to play for my province but even with a pay cut, they still couldn’t give me an offer.

“It hurts when you’re a homegrown boy. I still have my first Munster jersey from when I was 10 years old. It just hurts.”

Playing for Munster meant everything to Cronin. Coming through Ballincollig, Highfield, and the Youths system, the senior red jersey was his Holy Grail. He watched the Heineken Cup successes in 2006 and 2008 with pride, aspiring to be on that stage. 

Nothing was handed to Cronin. He didn’t go through a prestigious rugby school or come from a strong rugby background. He had to fight every inch of the way so he cherished every moment when he got there. The craic and camaraderie in the Munster dressing room was his lifeblood. The frustration of semi-final and final defeats, the good days like beating Toulouse and Toulon and the Māoris. All part of the journey.

He also loves club rugby in the province. Cronin has proudly played for Ballincollig, Highfield, and Dolphin. His brother, Miah, is the number eight for Highfield and James relishes any chance he gets to go and watch AIL games.

He even played for Highfield himself in 2019 when he was coming back from nine months out with a hamstring injury. Munster needed a bit of convincing when he asked for permission to do it, but Cronin got the nod.

niall-scannell-james-cronin-and-andrew-conway-celebrate-at-the-end-of-the-game Cronin celebrates Munster's win over Toulon in 2018. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I got an unbelievable kick out of playing for the club with lads I had played with when I was 17 or 18,” he says. “I got to play with my brother. That was special.

“I’m just James Cronin up there, not some fella who plays professional rugby. I’m just a normal fella.”

Cronin is all-in on Munster rugby, so that’s why it didn’t sit easily with him being let go. Then-head coach Johann van Graan said publicly at the time that “the current environment we find ourselves in” meant Munster were “unable to retain the services of a player of his quality”. In other words, the suggestion was they couldn’t afford him.

Having been told it was to do with the finances, it unsettled Cronin that Munster were able to bring in Simon Zebo and Jasons Jenkins that summer. He has nothing against those players themselves, he stresses, but it didn’t make sense to him.

Munster had made their decision, they were going to back Josh Wycherley and Jeremy Loughman to push through behind Dave Kilcoyne. Cronin knew that things hadn’t been easy for him as a young man. He recalls how players had to “rip the jersey off the fella in front of you” to get into the team when he first broke into the senior squad.

The reality was that Cronin had to find a new club. There were possibilities of short-term deals in Connacht and Ulster but Cronin says there was no security whatsoever with that kind of agreement. He ended up with Biarritz in the French Top 14.

“I had a really good last season with Munster which, in a weird way, softened the blow,” says Cronin.

“I wasn’t bitter leaving, that’s one thing I want to say. I shook everyone’s hand. A mentor of mine told me not to drop my standards just because I had been told I wasn’t needed. I didn’t. I trained hard every single day up until my last day. I could leave with my head held high, knowing that I always gave everything for the jersey.”

One element of Cronin’s time in Munster that he is unable to get into is the one-month ban he was handed in 2020 due to what an independent judicial officer deemed to be “an unintentional anti-doping violation”.

Cronin failed an anti-doping test after a Champions Cup game in November 2019, testing positive for the banned substances prednisolone and prednisone. But the subsequent investigation found that the failed test was down to “a dispensing error by the pharmacy”.

At the time, Cronin made a statement that highlighted his obvious frustration. He said the episode had been “very trying for myself and my family” and highlighted how the pharmacy’s error had been “very serious”.

Asked about the matter this week, Cronin said he is unable to comment at present due to ongoing legal proceedings.

rhys-ruddock-james-cronin-and-jack-mcgrath Cronin has three caps for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The move to Biarritz last year was a sea change for Cronin. It was his first time living away from home and he appreciated the cultural side of things.

After a promising start, it was a tough season for Biarritz as they won just five games and were relegated. There were highlights such as beating La Rochelle – “It’s good to sicken Donnacha Ryan!” – and he loved playing against huge men every weekend, but he didn’t really enjoy the longer, less intense training sessions.

“It’s beautiful there, one of the nicest places to live in France,” says Cronin. “But that was a good thing I found out about myself: as nice as it was, I knew that a top environment would suit me better than a top lifestyle.

“Some players might be happy living on the beach, training not being too hard. Whereas I found out that I love top environments, I like when coaches are putting you under pressure and you want a winning mentality every week.”

He had signed with Biarritz for two years but had a relegation clause. So when his agent, Niall Woods, got him a two-year contract offer from Steve Borthwick’s Leicester, there wasn’t really a decision to make.

Tigers are a perfect fit for him. As soon as Cronin arrived, he could see why they have risen back to the top of the English game. There is a relentless demand for improvement and a big focus on players’ recovery. It has helped Cronin that he worked with Leicester’s head of physical performance, Aled Walters, in Munster, while there’s another Cork man at the club in S&C lead Mark Kilgallon.

Cronin has settled happily into the quiet village of Kibworth just south of Leicester, while the nearby town of Market Harborough has nice places for breakfast and coffee. Mana for rugby players.

Cronin will make his fourth consecutive start in today’s battle away to Saracens [KO 3pm, BT Sport 2] and has been impressed with the Premiership so far. There were over 18,000 people at Tigers’ first home game of the season against Newcastle, while the atmosphere for the derby clash in Northampton blew him away.

“That was rocking. That’s their Munster-Leinster.”

Cronin has been encouraged by Borthwick to use his jackal skills at the breakdown, while he’s confident in his passing ability whenever there’s an option to tip-on or go out the back. He has always relished a scrum battle and that aspect of Leicester’s approach sits well with him. Last weekend, they won seven scrum penalties against Northampton.

steve-borthwick Cronin says Borthwick is a world-class coach. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’ve had a 95-cap international on the other side of the scrum [Dan Cole] and we’re not a small pack. It has been going well.

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“It’s something they take massive pride in here, scrum and maul. That feeds down to everyone – the second rows, back rows, subs. They know they have to scrummage and maul. If they don’t, they’ll hear about it.”

Having made such a strong start to life with Leicester, it’s no great surprise that Cronin feels he can still offer Ireland something.

He knows that players based abroad typically aren’t picked but his ambition to wear the green jersey is undiminished. He points to past examples like Tommy Bowe at Ospreys and Geordan Murphy in Leicester.

“I feel like I’m playing my best rugby and obviously there’s a World Cup next year. I still have ambitions to play for Ireland,” says Cronin.

“You look at the Irish loosehead depth and I’d rank myself up there with any of them, to be honest. That’s not coming from an arrogant place. I’ve played for Ireland, I’ve been in Irish camps, but obviously not under the new regime. I’d love to be selected if I’m playing well enough. I’m not silly – if you’re not playing well enough, you don’t get selected.”

Cronin stresses again that it wasn’t his decision to leave Irish rugby. At the time, he wanted to stay with Munster. 

“It’s not as if I went chasing the money in France.”

He has three Ireland caps on his CV already, all of them won under Joe Schmidt. His debut came in 2014 against Argentina, his second cap against Italy in 2015, the most recent versus France in the 2016 Six Nations.

Cronin takes understandable pride in having Ireland jerseys up in the Ballincollig and Highfield clubhouses alongside his Munster shirts, but he reflects on his Ireland experiences so far as unsatisfying. He went through tough times outside the sport as a younger man and feels that spilled into his rugby.

“I was in a lot of camps under Joe Schmidt and I probably feel like I wasn’t… I wasn’t mature enough to be in international camp, to be honest.

irelands-james-cronin-and-devin-toner-walk-off-the-pitch Cronin would love another crack at Test rugby. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“I know that sounds like a silly thing to say but I had other things going on in my life away from rugby. If I’m being honest, I probably lost a few years and wasn’t really in a good headspace. I definitely feel I lost out on camps.

“I picked up injuries a couple of times too and to be fair, the looseheads were good at that time. You had Lions in Cian Healy and Jack McGrath, Killer was going really well. I was probably rated number four and I was aware of that.

“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason. It’s not how I wanted it to go, I wish I had more caps for Ireland but you just play the cards you’re dealt. I tried to play mine as best as I could.”

Now, Cronin believes he is a much better player and a more mature person. He has played in France and now in England, with plenty of experience against top-class opposition. He feels he doesn’t have too many miles on the clock at the age of 31.

Cronin would delight in another chance at Test rugby with Andy Farrell’s side.

“I’d love another crack. It wasn’t as if I left for money or turned an offer down. I was let go out of the system. That’s OK but I feel like I’m fighting my way back a small bit. If I’m good enough, I’d love to be selected.”

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