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Moving on to a new challenge a decade since Grand Slam glory

“The death knell for me was my last season in Gloucester. That did a lot of damage to me.”

Shane Monahan training with Munster in September 2015.
Shane Monahan training with Munster in September 2015.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

FOR A MAN who aspired to be a professional rugby player from the age of 12, Shane Monahan is surprisingly comfortable with accepting that his career in the game has been over since he was just 28.

“That was a gradual process for me. I’m at this point after probably two years of stepping away,” Monahan says.

“I think a lot of lads who have problems with leaving the game are in that situation because it happens overnight. They’re professional rugby players at the top of their game, earning six-figure contracts, and the next day they’re a former rugby player earning no money at all. That’s a very difficult thing for anyone.”

This Thursday will mark exactly 10 years to the day since Monahan played for the last Ireland U20 team to win a Six Nations Grand Slam. Under the stewardship of Eric Elwood, they finished the job in Italy on 16 March, 2007. But the hardest work had already been done by a team that included Monahan, Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley, Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Tommy O’Donnell.

“It’s funny,” laughs Monahan. “Every year the U20s don’t win a Grand Slam, we’re like: ‘We have it for another year, lads!’ That was one of the best times of my life. You weren’t under any contract at that stage so it was just purely for the love of rugby and aiming to get to where you wanted to go.

Keith Earls supported by Shane Monahan gets tackled by the Scottish defence Keith Earls on the attack for Ireland U20s against Scotland in 2007, with Shane Monahan in support. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“But at the same time it also just felt like having another box ticked and moving on to the next thing. The U20s was U20s and we all wanted to play senior for Ireland, so it was just a stepping stone. You look back at that team now, so many of them went on to become internationals and Lions. Some of the best players in the history of Irish rugby have come out of that team. I’m very lucky to have been part of that.”

Although he wasn’t the most notable graduate of that successful team, Monahan did play a crucial role. The Drogheda native’s biggest contribution came in the game against England in Athlone.

The night before a memorable victory for Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland at Croke Park, the U20s got a significant weekend for Irish rugby off to a perfect start by recording a 13-6 win. Monahan scored the only try of the game as Ireland picked up their third successive victory, having already accounted for Wales and a French side containing Louis Picamoles, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Maxime Medard, Yoann Huget and Francois Trinh-Duc.

“It was a terrible night in Athlone for that England game in terms of the weather conditions. Wet and windy, as usual,” Monahan recalls. “But it was a great night too. Getting that try was a big moment for me. You always want to make a big impact on a game. Sometimes games can pass you by and you’re always trying to make your mark. Thankfully I did that night and it’s a special memory to have.”

Ireland Celebrate Monahan (right) celebrates with Paul O'Donohoe and Cian Healy after his try against England. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

After that Grand Slam triumph, Monahan was well on track to realise his professional rugby dream. Having cut his teeth with Boyne RFC, the versatile back progressed through the Leinster academy. However, for a young lad to make his presence felt in a back department made up of Contepomi, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Horgan, Fitzgerald, Nacewa, Dempsey, Kearney, Sexton and McFadden, among others, was quite a considerable task.

After a few years with Leinster and a season at Connacht, Monahan was 24 and could count his number of senior appearances on one hand. He opted to look beyond the provinces for competitive rugby and found it in the second tier in England. During a season with Rotherham Titans, Monahan ran in 11 tries and Gloucester were impressed.

In the summer of 2012, he signed a contract for one year at Kingsholm and ended up being retained for two more. New Gloucester director of rugby Nigel Davies brought him in as a replacement for winger Lesley Vainikolo — who had departed for La Rochelle — and Monahan delivered. He scored seven tries in 20 games in his debut season.

“That was the best year I’ve ever had,” he says. “There were then top-four teams in the Premiership who wanted to sign me. Within a year and a half of being told that I wasn’t good enough in Ireland, Munster wanted to sign me on a two-year contract. That will tell you how fickle sport is.”

Shane Monahan Monahan left Leinster for Rotherham Titans in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

At the end of the season, Monahan’s form brought him to the attention of Les Kiss. Following the departure of Declan Kidney, Kiss had taken temporary charge of the Ireland squad for games against USA and Canada during a summer tour of North America.

“He rang me and said, ‘Do you want to play for Ireland?’ Obviously I did,” Monahan explains. “But I only ended up being a reserve so I didn’t get to travel. I think if I had signed for Munster I would have went on that tour. I knew that was a big decision I was making. I was just really enjoying it at Gloucester and I felt that I could play for Ireland if I kept playing well there anyway.”

Injury restricted Monahan to just 10 games during his second season at Gloucester, but he still managed to chip in with six tries — four of which came in the final two games of the campaign. There were further injury setbacks in the 2014/15 season, but his problems were compounded by changes on the coaching and management front.

David Humphreys came in as director of rugby and Laurie Fisher was appointed head coach. Despite his versatility and try-scoring pedigree, Monahan didn’t feature prominently in their plans. Thus began the gradual process of falling out of love with rugby, he says.

Rugby Union - Aviva Premiership - Worcester v Gloucester - Sixways Monahan in possession during his competitive debut for Gloucester against Worcester Warriors. Source: David Jones

“The death knell for me was my last season in Gloucester. That did a lot of damage to me. Stocks and shares is how I like to compare those situations. In my first season, my stock was high. But in that last season, because I wasn’t playing in such a competitive environment, my stock gradually went down.

“I got heat stroke during pre-season, which nearly killed me. Then I dislocated my shoulder, which kept me out for about 17 weeks. You’re already not playing and then you get injured. Other clubs start to look at you as a liability in terms of an investment. You’re hoping for that opportunity, that someone will have that belief. You’re battling with politics off the field, you’re training as hard as everyone else but you don’t get to do what you love, which is play games. That’s very disheartening and it really had an impact on my whole outlook.

“I was very much a momentum player. The more I played, the better I got. The longer I was out, the rustier I got. I played 28 games in a row with Rotherham, which was more rugby than I played in four or five years in Ireland, and I got a Premiership contract from that. I followed that up with the best season I ever had at the highest level.”

He adds: “My style of play is like Marmite — some people love it, some don’t. The new coaches that came in at Gloucester didn’t. It was as simple as that, which is fair enough, but I always think you should give people an opportunity to show what they can do. I wasn’t given that. Any coach who gave me an opportunity, I showed them what I could do. In rugby, and sport in general I suppose, it all comes down to getting opportunities.”

Peter O'Mahony tackles Shane Monahan Monahan is tackled by Peter O'Mahony during a 2014 Heineken Cup meeting of Gloucester and Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

That’s a message Monahan would convey to any youngster pursuing a career in professional rugby, just as he was a decade ago. The academy environment at Irish provinces is highly competitve and the margin for error is slim. It might not be the preferred route to the top for Irish players, but Monahan wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a detour abroad if opportunities at home are scarce.

“Academies can be brilliant, depending on how they work,” he says. “When I was in the Leinster academy it was during the Michael Cheika era. There was little to no involvement of academy boys in the senior team. You had some of the top guys — Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Sean O’Brien — but other than that we were playing AIL every week and maybe four ‘A’ games. There was no chance to get exposed to high-level rugby.

“It wasn’t until I left Ireland and got consistent rugby that I could show what I could do. Players should go wherever they have the best chance of playing first-team rugby. It’s difficult because academies can be very protective of players as they want to have the potential next superstar. But if they don’t get that out of one group then they move on to the next.

“Academies are great for developing guys physically and I’m sure at Leinster that it’s way better now than it was. I’m sure it has evolved. But there’s a lot of factors involved obviously. There’s pressure on the coach because he’s there to win games and cups. You have to develop and prepare for the future, of course, but winning now is the priority.

Tweet by @Shane Monahan Source: Shane Monahan/Twitter

“It’s not going to do much good for a coach if he’s giving academy boys a chance but they’re losing every week, because then he’ll lose his job. But getting them in as young as possible should be a big aim. One year with the first team is worth at least three in an academy.”

When Gloucester didn’t renew his contract in the summer of 2015, Monahan had other options in England and Wales but he decided on a move back to Ireland. Munster were only in a position to offer him a three-month deal to cover their World Cup absentees, but — uncertain about his future in the game — that suited Monahan just fine. Interests outside of rugby were beginning to vie for his attention.

He enjoyed his time working under the late Anthony Foley and played three times in the Guinness Pro12. Although he wouldn’t have turned his nose up at a contract extension, Monahan was content to move on — not to a different club, but to another sport entirely. He had been keen to try his hand at mixed martial arts and spent nearly six months training last year at Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, before competing in an amateur bout in August.

Monahan intends to return to MMA training eventually, but at the moment his time is precious. He recently unveiled Limor, an intriguing social audio app for which he has big plans. The app hasn’t yet been given a proper launch but it’s already gathering momentum, with former team-mates like Jim Hamilton spreading the word.

Tweet by @Shane Monahan Source: Shane Monahan/Twitter

It’s nearly 18 months since Monahan, who turns 30 next month, last played a game of rugby. He hasn’t officially retired, but taking his current circumstances into account, he’s honest enough to accept that his career in the game is over.

“Realistically with the way things are going for me now in business and stuff like that, I won’t be going back,” he says. “There’s no way you can be a professional rugby player and run a start-up company as well. The time commitment would be impossible.

“Rugby is a very fickle industry as well in the sense that it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I haven’t played professional rugby in well over a year now. I’d be starting from the ground up again, trying to get a contract. The game is so competitive that it would be very, very difficult, especially at my age, to get in. I’d be swimming against the tide.

“For a good year I didn’t miss it at all. Recently and around Six Nations time you start to feel it, and I’ve started to watch Premiership rugby again. I certainly do miss playing and being in a group environment with all the lads.

Shane Monahan and Manoa Vosawai Monahan on the charge for Munster against Cardiff Blues. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But I do like the freedom I have now. Because I didn’t clock up that much mileage over the years, my body is in great shape too compared to a lot of the lads I know. I’ve got a lot to look forward to on the business side and that’s where my passion is now. I can thank my lucky stars really. I’m very content with where I am.”

Monahan knows that fairytale endings are rare in sport. He’s therefore not kept awake at night by wondering what might have been. Not winning a senior cap for Ireland is a regret, but there’s peace of mind in casting his mind back to that phonecall from Les Kiss.

Monahan: “It didn’t happen but I feel that at least I know I was good enough to play for Ireland, so there’s no ‘what if?’ feelings about it. I know in my own mind that I was good enough to play at that level. That will do for me at this stage.”

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Paul Dollery

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