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Dublin: 17 °C Thursday 13 August, 2020

'Every game is a chance to put a marker down, a step closer to that jersey': Deegan delivering on 2014 promise

From apparently challenging Jamie Heaslip as a 17-year-old , the Leinster number eight is now walking the walk.

YOU MAY HAVE seen this tweet before, maybe you haven’t.

It bubbles up from the archives as a retweet every now and then, usually when Max Deegan is having a stormer.

With all the evidence of his time excelling as an Ireland U20 and now as a rapidly rising Leinster star, you might be forgiven for thinking this an act of youthful hubris from a 17-year-old feeling the excitement of national honours.

Instead, it was an act of contrition. A punishment for failing to abide by orders on team attire at a training session — simultaneously a mortifying lesson and a welcome off-field distraction to his team-mates — during a trip away to that year’s FIRA European Championship with Ireland Schools U18s.

“(Jamie Heaslip) has said it to me a few times,” Deegan says a touch bashfully.

“That was just a punishment, I wore the wrong socks to training and had to send that tweet out. I forgot about it and then it came up again.”

Max Deegan with Rob Herring Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

It will continue to form part of the back story as Deegan’s rise in the pro ranks continues. Legends often grow despite the true circumstances of a single message.

With four back rows named in Ireland’s squad before the start of the Six Nations, and three more possible Test starters injured, the Leinster’s depth chart at six, seven and eight is frightening. Yet Deegan has staked a firm claim in the pecking order over nine appearances this season.

His consistently eye-catching performances are never short of explosive bursts and he has delivered three tries each of his last three starts. He trades in marquee moments. The parts of the game that comes less naturally, are those which made Heaslip such a permanent fixture at number 8 for province and country, and therefore the subject of that 2014 tweet.

“I have sat down at talked to Leo (Cullen) at different times over the course of the season, just where I need to strengthen up on, stuff like that – the breakdown, getting good body height.

Simple things, but they have to be done perfectly at this level. So I just need to keep building on that kind of stuff, and at the line-out as well. I haven’t really been in too many line-outs at that kind of standard.

“I’m happy with how the season is going so far for me. Just, there’s so much competition in the back-row at Leinster, every training session is so competitive that you’re always pushing yourself and pushing each other to get the best out of everything.

“It’s a great environment to be in and I’m loving training and playing at the moment.”

Max Deegan wins a lineout Reaching. Deegan is keen to prove himself able to step up to the pro standard in all the aspects he excelled at while U20. Source: Camerasport/Dave Howarth/INPHO

Those who watched Deegan at U20 level and celebrated his match-winning try against Jordie Barrett’s New Zealand, will be aware that he is part of an exceptional crop.

Three of his fellow starters against the Baby Blacks in 2016 have won their first international caps in the past year and a handful more are fast becoming important men for their provinces.

That Deegan is in the latter category rather than alongside Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and James Ryan in the former, is not a source of frustration for the 21-year-old. There is a clear goal and path for him to follow to the top.

“It’s great to see the lads doing so well, and it’s definitely great to see that (Ireland) are giving opportunities to younger players like that.

“Obviously that drives me to push on and get up to that standard. They’re all some of my best mates, so you want to be playing with them. It’s great to see them doing so well.”

His captain from St Michael’s right through the age grades, he counts James Ryan as one of his closest friends as well as among the best players he’s been in a pack with. Naturally, he sees a different side of the prodigious, powerful international lock than the ever-focused professional that crosses the media’s path.

“I wouldn’t see the serious side too much. He is just a normal guy… watches TV, watches sports, plays Playstation. Nothing too crazy.”

I just think it is his mindset and his drive to perform as well as he can in every single thing he does. Whether that is in the gym, on the pitch and in the video room.

“Everything he does on the pitch, he is always trying his best, working as hard as he can.

“If someone makes a line break, he’s chasing back to catch him. If he is just hitting a ruck, he is giving it his best. A standard like that, everyone should be pushing to get to.”

Ryan won’t be in Leinster’s pack with Deegan this Saturday when the best two teams, dead level on points, in Pro14 Conference B come face to face while both squads are heavily depleted by their country’s Six Nations needs.

And with two clashes against the champions to come in the three weekends ahead for Leinster, there is an enormous opportunity for those left behind in UCD to build the play-off foundation for the absent front-liners.

Max Deegan Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“It’s great. These kinds of games where the lads are away, you have to take your chances,” says Deegan.

“There is no other way to go about it. You have to go out there and give it your best. If you are not giving it your best, you’re missing a chance. Every single game is a chance to put a marker down, to get a step closer to have that jersey.”

Perhaps he would be closer to owning a starter’s jersey in another team, but Deegan is more than happy to remain in his native province as long as he is still improving. He has come quite a distance in the four years since that 2014 run to the FIRA European Championship final, when a Sam Underhill-inspired England denied Ireland in the final.

There was something special brewing in that group. A look down the squad list of the men Deegan played and trained with in Poland and it makes you wonder what if someone else had pulled on the wrong socks that day and been sentenced to the pre-determined punishment of calling out their senior equivalent on the then newly-crowned Six Nations champions.

Max Deegan Deegan during the semi-final win over France U18 in 2014. Source: fot.Szymon Gruchalski

A James Ryan warning for Paul O’Connell? Jacob Stockdale signalling he was about to come after the Kearney brothers? Calvin Nash may have been left challenging 2014 Irupa player of the year Andrew Trimble or maybe Jordan Larmour would say Brian O’Driscoll’s impending retirement was past due.

Any of them would have had tongue firmly wedged in their cheek, but the evidence that followed in the years since gives credence to the gag.

“We always just concentrated on ourselves and didn’t really think about the future too much,” Deegan says of his title-hunting U18 and U20 international teams.

“We always just thought about the present and the games that we were playing.

Now, looking back on it, you think: ‘Jesus, we had some bunch of players!’ But in the moment you’re not really thinking about that, you’re only thinking about winning games.”

“I’d say it was all of us playing together at the same time, we would drive the standards. So, the level of training and the level of the games would always be higher.

“If you have one guy playing really well then the other good guys around him will want to be pushing to that standard.”

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Sean Farrell

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