Sean Cronin after winning the 2018 Grand Slam with Ireland. Dan Sheridan/INPHO

'That's why I believe in it so strongly, it can still happen for you playing AIL'

Ex-Ireland and Leinster hooker Sean Cronin is now the head coach of St Mary’s College RFC.

THE SUN IS shining at St Mary’s College RFC. There’s a giddy hint of summer in the air as Sean Cronin pulls up a chair in the empty bar at the clubhouse on Templeville Road.

The last time we saw Cronin, he was wearing the blue jersey of Leinster. These days, he’s representing a different bunch of Blues, having taken on the role of head coach at All-Ireland League club Mary’s at the start of this season.

The ex-Ireland hooker is in the midst of a busy day that involved coaching Munster sub-academy players in Limerick early in the morning. Then it was into the car to Dublin. Ahead of him lies a big evening of training with Mary’s, who will get through a gym session, a team meeting, and a session out on the pitch.

Throw in the fact that he’s studying for a Master’s degree in Applied Coaching at the University of Limerick, as well as having three children with his wife, Claire, and these are busy times for Cronin.

He loves being in the thick of the AIL with Mary’s, who are sixth in Division 1B ahead of today’s visit to Malone, their second last game of the season. The club has big ambitions to return to its former glories, having won Division 1 of the AIL in 2000 and 2012. 

Cronin appreciates the joys of the AIL. It was a launch pad for the Limerick man’s professional playing career. He fondly remembers winning the title with Shannon in 2006 when he was still only 20.

“That’s why I believe in it so strongly,” says Cronin. “I got a lucky break when Jerry Flannery broke through with Ireland and I was brought up from the Shannon U20s to play senior rugby.

“I remember my father rang Mick Galwey because back then, there were a lot of grizzled men playing. It was different and I was in the front row, not a winger.

“Not that my father would have stopped me but he wanted to be sure I knew what I was getting myself into. It went pretty well, we won the AIL and I kinda took off a bit with my career.

sean-cronin-scores-a-try Cronin was man of the match in the 2006 final. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

“There’s definitely players still being picked up for academy level from the AIL. That’s a big carrot for guys who are 19, 20, 21. It can still happen for you playing AIL.”

Cronin went on to play twice for his native Munster but Connacht offered him a pro contract and Cronin made his name there before switching to Leinster in 2011. He played for the eastern province 206 times and earned 72 Ireland caps along the way. 

With a CV like that, Cronin might have pushed for a chance in a pro coaching staff when he retired at the end of last season, but he had already been working with Mary’s as an assistant to then-head coach Steve Hennessy for around 18 months.

Cronin, who has a degree in business, did consider moving into primary school teaching, but coaching had a pull. It was Peter Smyth, a Mary’s legend who is now the IRFU’s head of elite player development, who first told Cronin he needed to just get his hands dirty.

“A few guys can go straight into coaching in the pro game and it works out well for them but I felt like I needed to build my experience,” says Cronin.

He’s ambitious and has found kindred spirits in Mary’s, working closely with outgoing president Gareth Roche and incoming president Bobby O’Connor on plans to drive the club to the next level. They want to get back into Division 1A as soon as possible.

There’s a renewed energy around the club since the pandemic passed. More supporters are turning up, the bar is busier, and Mary’s could have 27 different teams turning out on any given weekend. Now they want trophies at the top level.

They’re working towards having a more aligned structure around all teams in the club, something Cronin speaks passionately about. 

“There is a community feel in the club and you have that base of supporters, now it’s trying to grow that by bringing in a few ideas for structures from a performance point of view with the 20s, J1s, first team, to have that aligned and all the coaches trying to develop it together,” says Cronin.

SeanCroninClubStar Cronin is St Mary's College RFC head coach.

“You want a philosophy through from the 20s so that if a player steps up, they can play J1s and first team straight away. That’s what I’m trying to do.

“You want to show players that we’re going to help them on and off the pitch. We want everyone aligned together and not someone over there doing something different. You want everyone working in the same direction.”

The club has been looking to build even stronger connections with St Mary’s College in Rathmines, as well as Templeogue College just across the road, the hope being that players from both schools will flood into the club.

“We need to nourish those players, bring them in, make sure they have a proper programme in the 20s to give them the best for their development and keep them in the club, no matter what the level,” says Cronin.

“Some of them might end up being J1s or whatever level, but we cater for all types of players. With my senior coach hat on, I want to give them the best environment to push on and play senior rugby.

“Developing the coaches, developing the players, hopefully it becomes seamless where you’ve got a conveyor belt providing players into the senior team every few years. That’s the vision.”

Homegrown players are key to Mary’s plans but they’re willing to bring in a few from outside, with Cronin currently in the process of trying to ‘recruit’ a handful of players to bolster his squad for next season.

The club’s tradition of running rugby is attractive to some players.

“It’s often the first question they ask, ‘What kind of style do you play?’” says Cronin, but he points out that balance is required.

“I like to be expansive but in this league, you’re coming up against big, power-based teams. You have to adapt your plan at times.”

Cronin has a young squad in Mary’s but that’s the way in the AIL now. The league has changed. He reckons the average age in his group is around 23.

hugh-hogan-lifts-the-trophy Hugh Hogan lifts the AIL Division 1 trophy in 2012. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Cronin has enjoyed the challenge of breaking down the core skills to deliver them to players with varied rugby backgrounds. It’s all about getting the most out of them on a Saturday.

Mary’s use the online Hudl platform for much of their player feedback but the one area he finds toughest as a head coach is having selection chats with disappointed players. He appreciates more than ever what his own coaches went through giving him bad news. The fact that teams can only have six subs in the AIL makes it even trickier.

Cronin has some strong coaching mentors to call on, including Leinster’s Stuart Lancaster and Paul Kinnerk, who has had a huge influence on Limerick GAA and encouraged Cronin to take on the Master’s in Applied Coaching.

“We’re doing a big module on reflection at the moment,” says Cronin as an example of what he’s learning.

“Reflecting on anything – training or dealing with players – is how you learn for when a similar incident might arise in the future.

“It’s really interesting because other people on the course are involved in individual sports like rowing and athletics. I’d never have had any experience of working with those people or getting their ideas.”

Cronin’s work with Munster and their ‘national talent squad’ players is on a consultancy basis and amounts to a few hours a week, but he has enjoyed that challenge too.

“I’ve only dipped the toe in with the sub-academy lads which has been great for my development because I’m working with front rowers and hookers, which has given me an ‘in’ to develop my coaching experience in that aspect of the game.

“I have to get all my messaging and language in line with what they’re looking for. That’s been the biggest work-on for me, whereas with Mary’s, I’m using my own language that I’ve developed with the lads over time.

sean-cronin-celebrates-with-his-children-saoirse-finn-and-cillian-after-making-his-200th-appearance-for-the-province Cronin with his three children, Finn, Saoirse, and Cillian, after his 200th Leinster cap. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“That’s one big learning – you have to adapt to whichever environment you’re in.”

While it involves a fair bit of driving up and down the M7 from Limerick, Cronin feels fully at home in the environment at Templeville Road.

Mary’s will try to finish this campaign with two more wins and a big pre-season will be rolling around before they know it, with a trip to Valencia on the cards in August. The hope is that promotion to Division 1A will arrive as soon as possible.

“I can’t overstate how much support I’ve got from everyone in the club,” says Cronin.

“Now, it’s about whether we can create success.

“The facilities we have – the gym, the pitches – it’s all readymade for us to do something.”

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel