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'The lads have been slagging me saying I've got more clubs than Tiger Woods!'

Ex-Ireland U20 hooker Sean McNulty is part of the Seattle squad aiming for MLR glory today.

Sean McNulty in 2018 during his time with Leinster.
Sean McNulty in 2018 during his time with Leinster.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

WHEN YOU LOOK back at Sean McNulty’s youth, it’s no great surprise that his professional rugby career has taken him out of Ireland and over to the US.

The ex-Ireland U20 and Leinster academy hooker lived in New York for most of the first 10 years of his life, part of what was a “very nomadic” upbringing that also included time in London and Bahrain before a move to Ireland when he was in secondary school.

This week, 26-year-old McNulty found himself flying back to NYC as part of the Seattle Seawolves squad who are gunning for Major League Rugby glory in today’s final against one of his former teams, Rugby New York, at the Red Bull Arena [KO 5pm Irish time, The Rugby Network] just out the road in New Jersey.

Some of McNulty’s childhood friends will be there to cheer him on, his sister is in town, while his parents are currently planning a permanent move back to New York this summer. The Big Apple is a big part of McNulty’s life.

He moved back to the US in 2019 after being released by Leinster, first joining the New England Free Jacks, having a loan spell in New York, moving on to the LA Giltinis to help them to last year’s MLR title, and then being traded to Seattle in April.

“I told myself coming over to the MLR that it is just such a great experience seeing a new part of the world,” says McNulty, speaking on Zoom from the airport in Seattle as they got set to take the five-and-a-half-hour flight across the country.

“All the teams are in the major cities of the US, so you’re travelling to unbelievable places like Austin, New York, Seattle, LA.

“Some of the lads have been slagging me saying I’ve got more clubs than Tiger Woods because I’ve moved around a bit but I think it’s great!”

Born in London, McNulty was soon on the move with his family over to New York, where his dad was a finance man on Wall Street. 

When Sean was 11, they moved on to Bahrain, where his parents had originally met back in the 1980s. He and his older brother, Ireland 7s star Harry, played with Bahrain Rugby Club before going to boarding school at Rockwell College back in the McNulty homeland.

nicholas-mccarthy-joey-carbery-sean-mcnulty-and-andrew-porter-during-the-national-anthem McNulty with Nick McCarthy, Joey Carbery, and Andrew Porter for the Ireland U20s in 2015. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

Rugby was everything and after Harry – two years his elder – had advanced into the Munster academy, Sean opted for college in Dublin and joined the Leinster academy in 2015, having played two years of Ireland U20s rugby. While there were some pre-season appearances for the senior Leinster side and he also played for UCD in the AIL, McNulty wasn’t able to push on to a pro contract.

He considered quitting rugby altogether after being released in 2018 but he went off to New York for a holiday that summer and met up with Greg McWilliams, now the Ireland Women head coach but part of the US Eagles coaching staff at that time. 

McWilliams highlighted the opportunities in the MLR. He reminded McNulty that being US-qualified thanks to a cumulative 10 years living there could potentially lead to Test honours in the future. McNulty’s mind was open. A couple of weeks later, the Free Jacks called and he was soon signing a contract.

He has had first-hand experience of the incremental growth of the MLR and American rugby. The recent confirmation of the USA will host the 2031 and 2033 World Cups has given things a new wave of energy.

“The Americans know how to throw a party and have entertainment at the core,” said McNulty, “so that World Cup will be unbelievable from a fan’s perspective as well.”

There are more promising young American players now coming through from colleges, explains McNulty, while there are also lots of big names playing in MLR. The New York team for today’s final includes Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo in the back three.

“Four years ago, you wouldn’t have imagined that All Blacks and Wallabies legends would be coming here so soon,” says McNulty.

“And there are guys coming in now who are still in their prime, class players. The coaching has improved. The Rugby Network now shows all the games, they used to be streamed on Facebook Live at the start. The attendances are better, we had nearly 8,000 at the final last year.”

Being part of that title-winning LA Giltinis team last year was special for McNulty, particularly given that he had the “once-in-a-lifetime” experience of playing for the same club as Harry, who is known as the ’14-minute man’ within the Ireland 7s set-up because he seems to play every minute of every game.

It was a glamorous lifestyle in Los Angeles with the Giltinis, whose squad included stars like Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dave Dennis. “I’ve never seen harder workers than those three lads,” says McNulty.

SM-22 McNulty in Seattle colours. Source: Seattle Seawolves

Aussie club owner Adam Gilchrist put fun and enjoyment at the heart of the club, explains McNulty.  

“We did pre-season in Maui in Hawaii for six weeks, we came back and played in the LA Coliseum. We were the first live sporting event to have fans in SoFi Stadium – the new LA Rams stadium where the Super Bowl was.

“Steve Aoki DJ’d the MLR final when we got there, mad things like that.”

This season, however, the Giltinis were disqualified from the MLR play-offs along with the Austin Gilgronis, the other club owned by Gilchrist. The MLR hasn’t shared details but reports in the US suggest that the decisions were related to the salary cap.

McNulty’s adventure in LA ended in April, when he was traded to Seattle “for cap consideration.” Trades are more common in the NBA and NFL, but the MLR has picked up this tradition, along with combines, college drafts, and cut deadlines.

Basically, McNulty was injured for five weeks so he was removed from the Giltinis’ salary cap temporarily. The club signed a new hooker in USA international Joe Taufeteʻe, then McNulty came back from injury and the club’s spending was over the salary cap. 

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“I had to get traded,” said McNulty. “In fairness, I was fortunate I had options. They told me there were four or five teams interested and I got to have the final say in where I wanted to go.”

McNulty knew several of the Seawolves squad, the club had won the first two MLR titles in 2018 and 2019, and the head coach Allen Clarke – the former Ireland international, Ulster assistant coach, and Ospreys boss – had been already tried to sign him a year before. McNulty packed his bags to go north.

He sensed that the Seawolves were building momentum. He was right. Seattle, whose starting team today includes ex-Ulster man David Busby, are on a four-game winning streak including last weekend’s Western Conference trophy success over Houston. That said, New York have also won four in a row.

a-view-of-the-red-bull-arena The MLR final takes place at the Red Bull Arena today. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“They’re star-studded, a lot of All Blacks and Kiwis with Super Rugby experience but we played against them earlier in the year and it was a close game, we just lost, says McNulty of New York.

“We’re going pretty well at the moment and we have a really good team ourselves. It’s fixed to be a good one.”

Another MLR medal is the goal for McNulty this weekend but he still has hopes of forcing his way into the Eagles mix in the future.

He was invited to a training camp in 2020 but then Covid-19 struck and the meet-up was cancelled. McNulty hasn’t heard anything since.

“I’m really enjoying my rugby and if an Eagles opportunity comes around, that would be great.”

McNulty finished his degree in Business and Sports Management online during his first couple of years in the US so he has already been future-proofing himself but there is still plenty of road left for him in rugby.

He hasn’t looked back to Ireland or Europe since 2019 and he can see himself living in the US even post-rugby, but the nomadic McNulty is always open to new opportunities.

“I do view rugby as a ticket to see the world and new experiences, so if something came up I would think about it.

“Japan’s league is going pretty well, that would be cool to do at some point, but right now I’m a US-qualified player in the US and I’m only 26, so it’s pretty cool being here.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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