The Luxembourg international joining the AIL after a year with Stade Français

20-year-old Tony Drennan has signed with Queen’s University and still has professional rugby ambitions.

BACK IN MARCH, Tony Drennan was training against the senior France team as Fabien Galthié’s men prepared for their Six Nations clash with Scotland, which proved to be the last game of the championship before lockdown.

Drennan was part of the Stade Français academy at that stage but fast forward six months and the 20-year-old finds himself in a different situation as he settles into life with Queen’s University in Belfast, where he’ll study and play rugby.

The Luxembourg international arrived in Ireland last week and will miss the opening game of the new Energia Community Series against Banbridge this afternoon as he recovers from a head injury, but his aim of playing professional rugby remains undiminished.

“It’s really good to be back in a proper club, if that makes sense,” says Drennan of joining Queen’s, becoming the club’s 90th international player in the process.

Tony Drennan Drennan spent last season in the Stade Français academy.

“Being in Paris was obviously so professional, it’s all very much about the individual and making it to the next level. I’ve only been to one training session and one game here, but it feels like a club with lads playing for each other.”

Drennan – a back row or second row whose preferred position is number eight – was born and bred in Luxembourg to Irish parents, who had moved there for work.

“I sound Irish because I’d always be speaking English to my parents and we used to come over to Kilkenny in the summers,” he explains of the Irish lilt of his voice.

Rugby was close to “non-existent” in the wider Luxembourg consciousness as he grew up, so Drennan has done well to make it as far as he has. He played for Rugby Club Luxembourg, who made trips to neighbouring Belgium or Germany for games at the weekends due to the lack of local competition.

At U16 level, Drennan got involved in the IRFU’s Exiles system but just missed out on the final tour of Ireland in 2016.

Still, he had a pro rugby dream and chased it hard as he became part of Luxembourg Rugby’s pipeline. Twice-weekly sessions with fellow young hopeful Liam Carroll, a Scot, under the guidance of Luxembourg’s head coach, a Kiwi by the name of Marty Davies, accelerated his progress.

With no U20 rugby in Luxembourg due to so many young people leaving the country for college, Drennan was pitched straight into senior rugby as a teenager, playing against men who had moved to Luxembourg for work in the financial sector.

The school of hard knocks was helpful and, having already played international 7s, Drennan made his senior 15s debut for Luxembourg against Finland in 2018, starting in the second row having only just turned 18.

AD Drennan has three senior caps for Luxembourg.

“I remember being a bit teary before we walked out, thinking it would be the highest level I’d ever play, 2,000 people in the stand, my family there, the national anthem,” recalls Drennan of the 45-5 win in the Rugby Europe Conference 2.

Drennan was unfortunate to break his leg the following week but he has won three caps for Luxembourg in total so far and hopes to play on with his native country even though he’s now based in Ireland. The caps mean he’s no longer Irish-qualified.

While Luxembourg isn’t renowned as a hotbed of rugby talent, Drennan’s potential caught Stade Français’ eye when a scout spotted him playing a club match in Germany.

Drennan was then unaware as Stade Français came to scout him again and he was sent off for two yellow cards in a foul-tempered game that saw his cheek split open. Happily, he later found out that the scout’s report had been glowing about Drennan’s no-nonsense mentality.

Stade got in touch with Drennan and Carroll with the offer of a trial in Paris just two weeks before their final school exams in Luxembourg. Initially daunted, they realised “the level wasn’t majorly different” and were duly asked to come back for a year.

Keen to study in Ireland throughout his youth, Drennan had already been accepted into the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics course over in Queen’s but he couldn’t turn down the chance in Paris and deferred it for a year.

“I thought my parents would be telling me that education comes first but they said that I had to take the opportunity.”

Arriving in Paris in June 2019, Drennan and Carroll threw themselves into the demands in Stade’s academy, rising at 5.30am every morning for weights and skills sessions, with training on the pitch later each day and a game every weekend. He loved it, although the Top 14 club wouldn’t release him for international duty.

QUB-Internationals Former Queen's players Tommy Bowe, Nigel Carr, David Humphreys, and Trevor Ringland, with current captain David Whitten.

Former France lock Pascal Papé was their head coach, explaining how they ended up training against les Bleus earlier this year.

“That was incredible,” says Drennan. “We did four minutes on, two minutes off, four minutes on, like that. It was full contact against the French national team with a crowd watching us. They were so big and fast. It was the best experience ever.”

Drennan’s year with Stade was cut short by Covid-19 and the Parisian club didn’t offer him a new contract coming into the 2020/21 season. He looked around France but found it impossible to get a deal due to not being JIFF-qualified.

So Drennan opted to make the move to Ireland to start his degree in Queen’s, having realised in Paris that education was key.

“Some of the lads in French academies are on good coin compared to what I hear about in Ireland,” says Drennan, “but some of them wouldn’t even finish school, they were on three or four grand a month and getting a place to live, so they felt they were set.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, if you smash your knee, you’ve got nothing to fall back on’ so that was a rude awakening for me. I just thought that even if I do make it in pro rugby, you’re not going to make enough money to not have a job after.”

And so, Queen’s were more than happy to welcome a young forward of Drennan’s calibre into their academy and he’s excited to get started on the pitch as soon as he’s fit again, with the Community Series starting today and the shortened All-Ireland League campaign due to begin in January 2021.

Drennan will keep his head down and study, but the professional rugby dream isn’t dead yet.

“I want to get my degree, obviously, and I’d love to get in with Ulster in any way I can.

“When I finish my degree here in three years, I’d love to go back to France and make a name for myself there. When I was 12, I remember thinking I wanted to play professional rugby, even if it was just for one year, so that’s still the aim.”

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