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'We were getting relegated, everything had gone to sh*t. I was done'

Ruairí Cushion played in the Championship for six years and now coaches with Exeter.

THERE WERE SOME Monday mornings during Ruairí Cushion’s six-year stint with Plymouth in the English Championship when he and his team-mates weren’t sure if they still had jobs, never mind their doubts about whether training would go ahead as planned.

They sometimes feared the club might have gone bust overnight.

Former scrum-half Cushion – now a coach with the Exeter Chiefs academy – reckons Plymouth had financial troubles for three of the six seasons he spent with them in England’s second-tier league.

ruairi-cushion Cushion in action for Plymouth in 2010 against Leinster A. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

There were good times in Plymouth too and he’s glad to have furthered his coaching experience there – leading towards his current role with one of the best clubs in Europe –  but Cushion knows all about the reality of the bottom half of the Championship.

“By the time I got to my last season there in 2014/15, I was skills coach, head analyst, assistant backs coach, I was still playing, and had just finished being club captain so was helping out with the senior player stuff too,” says 36-year-old Cushion.

“They try to cut corners. You would have part-time S&C coaches coming in for two sessions a week even though you have five sessions. The physios were all excellent but completely under-paid and under-resourced.

“So at times, it was a complete cowboy league.

“I know lads who were given contracts of £3,000 or £4,000 for the season, lads who were 18 or 19 but this wasn’t like academy guys on cheap contracts and also getting accommodation and everything else taken care of. This was taking advantage of people and that’s what it can be like in the Championship.”

That Cushion ended up in England playing rugby and has been professionally-employed as a coach for the last five years is still a surprise to some of his friends. The Dublin man was far from a schoolboy star as he came through St Michael’s College and he had no pro ambitions when linking up with Old Belvedere RFC as he moved on to college in UCD.

But two coaches in Belvo had a huge influence, first Kiwi director of rugby Mike O’Donovan, who saw something in Cushion and worked hard with him on his technical scrum-half skills, then current Ireland assistant coach Richie Murphy, who was Cushion’s tactically-astute head coach for three seasons.

“Richie set things up in a way I could really get,” explains Cushion. “It was quite modern coaching, getting a bit of a channel system going. It was really interesting, simple stuff that people still use today, but done in a way that was systematic. Our style of play was very clear.”

Starting in the All-Ireland League from the age of 19 and helping Belvo to promotion into Division 1, Cushion became a standout player, going on to play for the Ireland Clubs team and being invited to feature for Leinster A, one of his proudest achievements.

Another Kiwi, Phil Werahiko, had taken over Belvo in 2008 and asked Cushion if he had thought about playing professionally, telling the scrum-half he could be a success in the Championship.

rory-cushion Cushion playing for Belvo in 2004. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Cushion said he’d be interested and a week later had an offer from Plymouth, with his agent Karl Hogan helping to finalise the deal.

“I was turning 25 and I was in a bit of a middle ground. I had started studying physio in Trinity but they said I could take a year off, so my whole intention was to go to Plymouth for a year and then come back to Dublin.”

Cushion later finished his physio degree in Plymouth and still uses that skillset with Exeter, as well as working with Ocean Physio Clinic on the side, but his early years in England revolved around proving himself on the pitch.

Cushion quickly realised what things were like outside the very top clubs competing for promotion from the Championship, which had gone ‘fully professional’ in his first season there.

“I got sold on it being a professional league, games being on Sky Sports, but really the RFU don’t invest in it. They’re now pulling back that funding even more.

“I call it a cowboy league because that lack of direction and finance meant clubs can take advantage of players’ desire to play professional rugby.

“A young guy is told he can be a professional player, train hard, be on TV, get exposure, but they can only pay him £15,000 a season.

“You get that horrible, cheap rate of pay but you’re expected to train like a top-level player. And you do. You put your body on the line every single week, you risk injury every single week.

“In some contracts, if you’re injured for more than four weeks, you stop getting paid. That’s ridiculous but because some clubs are run on such tight budgets, they cut corners everywhere.”

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It was up and down during his six seasons. Plymouth would get on a decent run and financial trouble would hit. One coaching team quit in the changing room after a win because they hadn’t been paid in months. At one stage, the club was literally days away from going into administration before an investor stepped in.

Cushion played well throughout his time with the club and his salary increased but he had a tempting offer to return to Ireland when he was 29, with Connacht getting in touch.

“Connacht were very honest, they had Kieran Marmion coming through and there were two other nines there already. They wanted a squad-based player on low money, a development sort of contract.

jj-hanrahan-hands-off-ruairi-cushion Cushion playing against Munster A in 2012. Source: Phil Mingo/Pinnacle

“It would have been going backwards just to call myself a Connacht player and wear the tracksuit. I thought it was smarter to stay where I was, getting paid more and potentially with longer-term opportunities to go into coaching.”

The quality of rugby in Plymouth was excellent at times and Cushion played alongside youngsters like Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, and Luke Cowan-Dickie during their loan spells from Exeter.

Cushion was club captain in 2013/14, when Plymouth had a particularly happy campaign and he had the “huge honour” of being selected for the Barbarians against a Combined Services team in November 2013.

Importantly, Cushion was also coaching. He had helped out in Michael’s while with Belvo, then started doing schools coaching in Plymouth before working with Devon representative sides. He popped back to Leinster for a visit to shadow Richie Murphy too.

Exeter were impressed with the work Cushion was doing in the region and asked him to formally join the club as an academy coach at exactly the right time in 2015.

“I was at the point of giving up on rugby,” says Cushion. “My last season was coming to an end with Plymouth and we knew we were getting relegated, everything had gone to shit. I was done.

“I was sick of the pressure of not knowing if my wages were coming, I wanted some job security. I had my physio degree and was hoping to get a job with the NHS. Then Exeter popped up with the offer.”

Cushion started off working with the Chiefs’ U14 and U16 teams in their ‘developing player pathway’ and has progressed up the academy ranks in each of the five seasons since.

His current role includes running Exeter’s ‘apprenticeship’ programme – similar to the sub-academy in an Irish province – coaching with the U18, U17s and U16 teams, developing coaches in the region, and also working with Exeter’s A League team – their second senior side.

Cushion has helped to develop excellent young players including this year’s England U20 captain Sam Maunder and his international team-mates Rusiate Tuima and Richard Capstick, as well as highly-rated tighthead prop Marcus Street.

RC Cushion has been with Exeter since 2015. Source: Exeter Chiefs

Exeter have been in the four most recent Premiership finals, winning the 2017 edition, and had been on a very promising roll in the Champions Cup this season before rugby was put on hold. They’re studied by clubs around the world as a model of good practice.

Cushion explains that the club is “massively built on hard work” and says it “can be quite a harsh environment” as everyone pushes for improvement, something the Irishman loves. He also enjoys learning from the senior coaches like Baxter, Ali Hepher, Rob Hunter and Ricky Pellow.

“Probably the most beneficial part of my job for the future is that the coaches here are so approachable. And the biggest value for me is how much Rob and his senior coaches respect the academy. They really want players from Devon and Cornwall to come through.”

Cushion has tried to keep in contact with the likes of Murphy, former Ireland Clubs team-mate Hugh Hogan – now coaching with Leinster – and IRFU head of elite player development Peter Smyth, and would love to find some way of working with Irish rugby.

“I’d love there to be an Exiles coaching programme,” he says. “I’m always meeting academy coaches, physios, and S&C coaches over here who are Irish, and they all want to keep that affiliation to Ireland. I might never come home but I know people who would love that pathway back. It might offer different insights.”

Still young for a coach, Cushion hopes his upward trajectory with Exeter continues in the coming years.

“There have been massive ups and downs since first moving abroad but it’s worked out to this point. There are opportunities outside Ireland, but I would say to always have a back-up plan.

“For someone like me, who wasn’t an elite player by any stretch, I needed to have the back-up plan as a physio.

“All it would have taken was a coach cutting me at one stage, so I needed that. I’d tell any player of my level hoping to go into coaching to have that back-up.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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