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McNulty discovers a new path having 'fallen out of love with rugby' after Leinster
The former Ireland U20 hooker contemplated retirement but is now looking forward to life with the New England Free Jacks.

PRE-SEASON IS a time of opportunity. A window to impress. Sean McNulty knew this more than most when he stood on the sideline preparing to replace Bryan Byrne in a friendly against Gloucester two Augusts ago. 

The hooker got on for the final 20 minutes of Leinster’s pre-season defeat of the English Premiership side, and was then involved a week later when Leo Cullen’s side geared up for the new campaign with another win over Bath at Donnybrook.

Sean McNulty Oisin Keniry / INPHO Sean McNulty during his Leinster days. Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

Heading into his final year in the Leinster academy, McNulty knew he couldn’t let these games pass him by. Watching his peers make the breakthrough at senior level, he had been forced to bide his time. But now it was running out.

All of this was going through his head when he came off the bench on those consecutive Friday nights in August 2017. This was his last chance saloon, and that burden weighed heavy. 

“I didn’t have a great game,” McNulty recalls. “I remember I came off the pitch and told my Mum, ‘I’m gone, that’s me done.’ It was in my head that I had played poorly and that was my one opportunity blown.”

McNulty would go on to play for Leinster ‘A’ during the 2017/18 season, but his first-team chance never arrived and he was released by the province at the end of his three years in the academy system.

“I found it quite hard,” he continues. “Leinster was probably the high point of my career but then the whole third year of the academy was pretty tough. I knew from early on in third year I wasn’t getting a contract. It was pretty tough going in every day for five, six months knowing I wasn’t getting a contract.

“I met my best friends through rugby. All my closest friends are Leinster rugby players pretty much so that was very, very hard [having to leave]. Knowing they’d all still be there and I had to go and find a new club and start on my own path. I dwelled on that for a bit, yeah. I should have parked it but I didn’t and it probably didn’t help my training.” 

A product of Rockwell College, McNulty earned international honours at U19 and U20 level, while representing Munster at underage level. He moved into the Leinster academy and studied Business and Sport Management in UCD, for whom the 23-year-old also played in the All-Ireland League with.

But his experience at Leinster, or specifically coming to terms with the psychological scars of being released, left McNulty low on confidence and short on motivation to get up and go again. He received offers from clubs in the English Championship, but the prospect of cutting his teeth in that environment did not appeal to him.

Instead, McNulty seriously contemplated packing it in. He had watched his friends and peers forge professional careers, while he was left without a club and without direction. 

“When I was leaving Leinster, I was stuck in a place where I didn’t know if I was going to keep playing rugby,” he explains. “I was potentially retiring and was looking into other things. I kind of just fell out with rugby for a little bit.

“I was kind of just done with it because I knew coming out of Leinster, moving over to England would be a come down. I wanted something that would excite me.”

Nicholas McCarthy, Joey Carbery, Sean McNulty and Andrew Porter during the national anthem Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO Playing for Ireland U20s alongside some familiar faces in 2015. Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO / INPHO

After his final season at Leinster, US-qualified McNulty went to New York on holiday with a number of his team-mates and while they were all returning home to Dublin for the start of pre-season, he remained in America.

Whilst there, McNulty — the younger brother of Ireland sevens international Harry — met up with Greg McWilliams, who coached several of the current Leinster team at St Michael’s before linking up with the Ireland women’s team and then moving to America, where he is now the US Eagles assistant coach.

McNulty’s mind was opened up to the opportunities in Major League Rugby and, further down the line, the potential of representing the Eagles by McWilliams during their lunch meeting.

“There were two days I remember very clearly,” he says. “The first being that day the other lads left New York to go home for pre-season. 

“Towards the end of the holiday, they were all going home back to Dublin and I was staying on in New York. That’s when I realised I wanted that too and wanted to keep being a rugby player. I suddenly missed it. 

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“I was looking at doing a Masters in Life University in Atlanta. A few Irish lads have gone through there, including AJ MacGinty. They have a good rugby programme and that was an option, to study and just play on the side. But then I met up with Greg and had that chat.

I was bouncing ideas off him and then a couple of weeks later, the CEO of the New England Free Jacks emailed me seeing would I be interested in coming over and being part of the Free Jacks from their infancy.

Within a matter of weeks, McNulty was signed up to play for the Free Jacks ahead of their inaugural season in America’s Major League Rugby [MLR], joining a growing Irish contingent in the league.

Although his first season with the Boston-based club was marred by a torn hamstring injury he suffered weeks before the Cara Cup competition involving the province’s ‘A’ sides, McNulty was able to get minutes under his belt by joining Rugby United New York on loan for the final stages of the 2019 campaign.

The Free Jacks will compete in their first season in MLR next year, with the club assembling a strong squad, including five Irish players: McNulty, former Munster scrum-half John Poland, ex-Connacht out-half Tadhg Leader, and second row duo Conor Kindregan and Ronan McCusker.

“It’s a brand new league, the Americans are buying into rugby and it’s growing at a rapid rate,” McNulty says. “There’s so much potential over here and we’re a very ambitious club. 

“The league here could be another pathway for Irish players. There are only four professional teams back home and with so many good players going around at the moment, there’s not room for everyone.

Sean McNulty and Tepai Moeroa Cathal Noonan / INPHO McNulty in action for Ireland U20s. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“I’ve had quite a few old team-mates getting onto me asking me about the league and what it’s like.

“I’ve been very surprised by the standard of it too. There’s a bit to go in terms of skill-sets but the actual pace of play and the willingness to play a good brand of rugby is very exciting. It’s very physical as well, there are a lot of big lads out there.”

McNulty has divided his summer between Boston and New York but will be back in Dublin later this month ahead of the start of pre-season with the Free Jacks in mid-November. 

While he is only beginning to find his feet again after the setback of being released by Leinster, McNulty is excited by the challenge and opportunity ahead, and makes no secret of his desire to achieve success with the Free Jacks.

That in turn, he says, will help him reach his personal goal of breaking into the Eagles set-up alongside the likes of McGinty, John Quill, Paul Mullan and Dylan Fawsitt, not to mention McWilliams on the backroom team.

“100%. My eyes are on the Eagles,” he adds. “Talking to Greg, there is that opportunity to potentially kick on with the Eagles. I missed all of last season so I guess this World Cup was never really realistic but 2023 is definitely a target if I can put myself in the shop window.

“I’m 23 now, so hopefully I can start well with the Free Jacks and break in within the next two seasons. We’ll see what happens from there.”

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