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'I've seen plenty of guys being spat out of the game because of that'

Former Ulster and Ireland U20s hooker Niall Annett is now well settled with Worcester Warriors.

AS WE SPEAK over the phone, Niall Annett has to usher his dog into the other room for a bit of peace and quiet.

Benji is a mini Schnauzer crossed with a Poodle, and Worcester Warriors hooker Annett jokes that it’s like having a pet cat when they go out for walk.

When he and his wife, Claire, decided to get a dog, Annett had visions of strutting about town with a big Alsatian at his side. That plan didn’t quite come to fruition.

But the former Ireland U20 captain isn’t joking when he recounts how Benji played a role in dragging him through the toughest period of his life two-and-a-half years ago.

NA Niall Annett speaking to Worcester Warriors TV. Source: Worcester Warriors TV

The loyalty shown to him by Worcester during that time is also one of the reasons Annett feels so attached to the Premiership club, who he initially joined from Ulster in 2014. 

In 2017, Annett’s father passed away after a battle with cancer, during a time when Niall was in the midst of a nightmare period of 18 months out of action through injuries.

Annett had suffered a syndesmosis issue and then concussion to ruin the second half of his 2016/17 season. He trained too hard in the off-season that followed, tweaking his hamstring, but eventually got back onto the pitch for an A League game. 

It felt like he had turned a corner but in the days that followed, Annett ruptured the ACL in his left knee during a mauling session in training.

His father had been battling cancer for some time, and a fortnight after Niall’s knee injury, he passed away.

“The club has been very good to me,” says 28-year-old Annett as he looks back on that time. “They were very loyal to me at that stage, they gave me a new contract off the back of rupturing my ACL. I’ve seen plenty of guys being spat out of the game because of that.

“I know it’s probably a reflection of what I’ve put into the club too but at the same time, they showed me great loyalty and I appreciate it massively.

“It was very difficult. I’d say it was the toughest period of my life and I mean that in a genuine context.

“A really, really rough period when you tie in the injuries with my old man being sick and two weeks after tearing my ACL, he passed away. That was one of the darkest periods.

“But you just get through it because there’s no other choice. You put your head down and get on with it. That’s the only way you know.

“We were chatting about the dog, who we got two weeks before I did my ACL, and I’m not exaggerating when I say my wife and the wee man dragged me through that period.

“You come out the other side of it and it’s part of your story now.”

johann-muller-celebrates-with-fans Annett came through the ranks in Ulster. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

Annett isn’t looking for sympathy. He comes across as a very honest, down-to-earth person as he speaks from his home, which himself and Claire – who he met when they were in school in Belfast – bought after she moved to join him in Worcester four years ago.

In lockdown like everyone else, Annett has been throwing himself into podcasting, having recently launched ‘Wind Yer Neck In,’ which involves long-form conversations with current and former players, including Donncha O’Callaghan.

While training from home, Annett has also been driving Worcester’s attempts to stay in touch with supporters, himself and others making calls to elderly fans who are stuck at home, as well as doing shout-out videos for anyone who emails the club requesting them.

On the rugby front, Annett missed the entire 2017/18 season with that nasty ACL injury but in the two campaigns since, has underlined his status as a key player in Alan Solomons’ squad, captaining the team several times.

Annett signed a new two-year deal last December, having already become one of the longest-serving players at the club. Having only recently returned from a shoulder issue, Annett could have done without the current season being suspended but he stresses that rugby is insignificant in the current climate.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Annett and Worcester had been dealt some perspective when Warriors second row Michael Fatialofa suffered a serious spinal injury against Saracens in January, spending over two weeks in intensive care as a result.

Since then, Fatialofa has remarkably battled back to being able to walk unaided.

“He’s a great guy and his motivation and perspective on what’s gone on for him and his wife Tatiana has been genuinely unbelievable,” says Annett. “It can’t be overplayed. Their attitude to how they’re doing it is inspirational.

“The progress he’s made is incredible. You’ve probably seen the videos of him walking and I think he’s months ahead of where they thought he would be. That’s no surprise to us because we know what he’s physically capable of and also his attitude.”

That Fatialofa was injured so badly in what seemed like a routine carry – “it’s something that I know I do probably eight to 12 times a game” – was scary for everyone in the club. A reminder of how dangerous their careers can be.

jean-marc-doussain-and-niall-annett Annett is a former Ireland U20s captain. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having come through his own dark times, Annett will to strive to continue making the best of his career whenever rugby returns.

After developing in Ulster’s academy and playing for the Ireland U20s for two years, captaining Mike Ruddock’s team in the second, Annett made 20 senior appearances for his native province but opted for a move to Worcester in 2014, when Rory Best and Rob Herring were ahead of him in the Ulster pecking order.

“I’ll be honest, it’s taken me time to really put this in context,” says Annett when asked about leaving. “Obviously, I was stuck behind Besty, who I could have happily sat behind and learned from because he’s one of the best to have played that position in certain aspects of his game.

“But what effectively happened was that there was a play-off between myself and Rob and, very simply, I got beaten for the position of second-choice by Rob. You find yourself third-choice, you’re not going away to games, getting that experience of 10 or 15 minutes off the bench every week, not getting to play every week when Besty goes to the Six Nations. I found myself missing out on a big chunk of my development.”

The choice was to sit in Ulster as third-choice or take the chance on offer in Worcester, where he could continue to learn from a hooker as good as Agustín Creevy but also play more often.

Annett joined Warriors as they spent a season in the second-tier Championship, playing 19 times during that 2014/15 campaign, and developing as a player.

“I genuinely believe that year in the Championship was the making of me. I said it on my podcast a few weeks ago – I spent week after week getting my head kicked in by some mutants over here, and I mean that.

“It was a learning curve every week for me. It was tough and physical and made me appreciate the ins and outs of the nitty-gritty, tight-quarter stuff.

“In hindsight, I could have come over here, not made it work and be doing a different job now. But I came over determined and confident in my own ability and, thankfully, nearing 100 caps for the club, it’s been worthwhile.”

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With a strong Ulster contingent around him in attack coach Neil Doak, back row Caleb Montgomery, loosehead Callum Black, tighthead Conor Carey, and scrum-half Michael Heaney – the last two were in Annett’s year in school at Methody in Belfast – there is a strong touch of home at Worcester.

As to whether he has had hopes of moving back to Ireland, Annett says he’d be “lying if I didn’t say that every time I’m up for contract, I don’t think about what’s happening back home.”

worcester-warriors-v-exeter-chiefs-031119 Annett in action for the Warriors. Source: Robbie Stephenson/JMP

However, there has never really been an ideal opening in one of the provinces. Annett has dreamed of winning senior caps for Ireland but admits it’s probably now an ambition that will remain unfulfilled. 

“My aim since I was 17 in the Ulster academy – I remember writing it down – was to play international rugby. But the older you get, not playing in Ireland, that looks less and less likely. That’s something I have to come to peace with.

“At the same time, we’ve looked but I don’t think the provinces have ever looked for someone my age, or maybe sitting down near the bottom of the Premiership is not the greatest perspective, I’m not sure.

“I think that ship has probably sailed unless something crazy happens.”

Annett actually became England-qualified three years ago and laughs as he recalls telling his brothers about the development.

“They said they needed a week away from me while they digested it!”

He’s certainly settled in Worcester and aims to help them build as a force in the Premiership, having been “nearly men” in too many close games in recent seasons.

Sitting 10th when the current campaign was suspended, but without the threat of relegation due to Saracens going down, Worcester have threatened to drive up the table a few times without fulfilling the promise.

“To sum it up, frustrating is the word that would stand out to me,” says Annett, while reinforcing his belief that Warriors will improve.

Due to a Rugby Players’ Association agreement, Annett can’t speak about the recent pay cuts in Premiership. While he has plenty of road still left as a player, Annett is smart enough to have already considered what happens afterwards.

His podcasting venture is a nod to that, while he is also a coach with Worcester Wanderers, a local amateur club. He acknowledges the potential lack of job security involved in a coaching career but feels passionate as he continues to learn.

“What you want to do is have options,” says the hooker.

Annett also finds time to act as an ambassador for the Acorns Children’s Hospice, who provide care and support for children with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions.

Now in his fourth year doing it, Annett’s role in normal times is to get Worcester players over to the hospice for regular visits while also being involved in organising the annual charity game that Warriors hold on Acorns’ behalf.

“I probably get more out of it than they get from me sometimes,” says Annett. “It’s really important to me as a professional rugby player – that chance to give back is something that I really enjoy and am passionate about.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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