Last week Jordan Duggan became the latest in a long line of Connacht Academy graduates to make their professional rugby debuts.

The prop came off the bench in an impressive bonus-point win over Ulster, and before the game we caught up with Jordan about what life at Connacht has been like so far.

How have your first few weeks been back at The Sportsground, what has it been like?

There were a lot of things to get used to, the novelty of coming back has been brilliant. To go from training on your own to going back into small groups and getting the ball back in my hand has been great.

Was it tough training in quarantine and how did you find the whole experience?

I spent quarantine back at home in Kildare, I didn’t find it too bad. I enjoyed the training, it was refreshing to do it by myself and do it my way. But getting back with others was brilliant after training by myself for so long.

Did you pick up any hobbies outside of rugby during quarantine?

I tried my hand at basketball, I wouldn’t say I am too good, I definitely can’t jump that well. I also tried a bit of skateboarding, but I can safely say neither of them went very well.

What would you say your overall experience was like in the Connacht Rugby academy?

The Academy was brilliant, when I first came up here I didn’t know what to expect in year one. There were a few familiar faces, throughout my time the Academy staff were brilliant. They train at such a high level and get you ready for the pro game.

Are there any coaches in the Academy that helped you with your development up until this point?

Besides all of the Academy staff, I have to mention the S&C staff and physio team. I had a tough ACL injury and they were able to get me through it and help me as much as they could. All the staff put in the hard yards with me and got me to where I am today.

How did you start playing rugby?

I am the first in my family to play rugby which is odd because they are all very musical which is the polar opposite of what I am doing. I started in Newbridge rugby club, I was running around in circles not knowing what to do back then. I came through Newbridge college, that is where things got a bit more serious for me.

You are from Kildare, what has the whole experience been like in the West of Ireland since you moved?

I have part of my family living in Galway and would have come here a lot when I was younger, I was always familiar with Galway and Connacht before moving here.

How important is it that the pathway is there for players to continue to come up through the Academy into the first team?

As an Academy player training with younger lads from the sub-academy, it is good for them to be able to see the likes of us pushing on. They can see that it is possible to get into year one of the academy and move on to the pro setup which is massive for them. It filters down to grassroots rugby and schools, they have to be able to see that pathway.

There is a lot of competition for your position in August how are you preparing yourself for those games?

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to play week in week out but you have to realise that it is a learning curve. The first year here you just have to learn from the best and do as best as you can. For the games, there is massive competition in training at the moment, everyone is eager to get playing and get back to playing games. There is definitely a bit of bite in training.

Have you learned a lot from the Senior players in your position?

Matty Burke has been great, he is close to my age so he is very black and white with me, he got great experience last season. Denis and Paddy have a massive amount of experience between them, they have been great to pull me aside and show me the dark arts. It has been great to learn from them.

What would you like to achieve with your first season with Connacht rugby?

I want to be playing every week, I know there are a few steps I have to get through first. I am looking for that jersey at the end of the day. I am training to play not just to train, I don’t want to be a professional trainer.

When the team play in August there will not be supporters at games, how are you preparing for that?

It will be strange, especially because The Sportsground is known for its atmosphere. It is a different place to come and play. It is out of our hands and we will have to focus on ourselves. We can only control what we can, it will be weird but the lads will need to have that mental switch to play like they would if there was a crowd. We will certainly miss the crowd.

Lastly, what is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

I played drums for 7 years, as I said before my family would be very musical so that certainly rubbed off on me growing up.

As the build-up to our return to rugby continues, we’re introducing you to all the new players who have signed for Connacht in the summer of 2020.
 
Today we speak to out-half Conor Dean, who has graduated from the Academy with one pro appearance already under his belt.
 

How have your first few weeks been back at The Sportsground, what has it been like?

It has been really good, it was weird the first few weeks with all the protocols in place. The first weeks were good in small groups and now we are back into full team sessions and it is getting very competitive with the games coming up.

Was it tough training during quarantine and how did you find the whole experience being at home?

I found it okay as the guys split up the gym equipment, there were no excuses to come back in bad shape and the weather helped when it came to going outside and getting the running in. I spent quarantine back in Dublin and my family joined in at times during my training sessions which were good fun. My dad done his back in five weeks in so I got the blame for that!

What would you say your overall experience was like in the Connacht Rugby academy?

Nigel was head coach of the Irish U20’s when I was there, so he was a familiar face when I arrived and would have been a good person to get a link with. While in the Academy I was integrated into the Senior team quite a bit. The lads treat everyone the same whether you are sub-academy or academy, it was a great environment and was very welcoming.

Are there any coaches in the academy that helped you with your development up until this point?

Mossy Lawler was a huge influence for me, he took most of the sessions and his attention to detail was second to none. His details on the smallest things were immense.

I know rugby was a big part of your family growing up, was your dad a big influence on getting you to play or did you naturally fall into it after seeing him play?

He was pretty relaxed and didn’t push me to play. I went to Blackrock, all we did growing up was play with a rugby ball.

You are originally from Dublin, what has the whole experience been like in the West of Ireland since you moved?

It has been a great experience, it is so different here. It is a lot more community based since it is a smaller place. The atmosphere on match week in town is buzzing and it has been a great change.

How important is it that the pathway is there for players to continue to come up through the Academy into the first team?

It is huge, this year six of us graduated from the Academy to the Pro team and there are loads more coming through pushing us. It is an unbelievable system in place and hopefully, we can keep generating more players coming through that system.

Have you learned a lot from other players like Conor and Jack?

They have both been very helpful, with Jack in the World Cup last year, the experience he brought back was incredible. Conor had a brilliant season last year, they have both been able to give me invaluable advice. They are probably sick of me asking them questions at this stage. They would be very good to review games and clips for me and help me out where they can.

How are you preparing yourself for the games in August and going forward for the season?

I am taking it day by day, each session is quite intense these days. I am trying to hopefully stay injury-free and put my best foot forward in training every day.

What would you like to achieve in your first season with Connacht rugby?

Eventually, I want to nail down a starting place. But you can’t look too far forward, you have to train as best as you each week and give the coaches a headache when it comes to selecting the team.

When you play in August there will be no supporters at the games, do you think it will be difficult playing in an empty stadium?

We have touched on it in our sessions and discussed how we will bring our own intensity. There is no extra support or extra noise, it will be different. Once we get into the game we will just get our job done, the team energy will be very important.

What is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

It would be my love for the game of golf. If I wasn’t playing rugby I would be on the golf course.

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.

Today we speak to Peter Sullivan, who joined the Academy last year after some stand-out performances in the Energia All-Ireland league.

How have your first few weeks been back at The Sportsground, what has it been like?

It was great to be back, being in small groups at the start was strange, but we are back now fully and it is great to see everyone and get some ball work in. It has been good catching up with the lads after not seeing them in so long.

You are at the stage of Pre-Season where the hard work around S&C is done and dusted and because you are back as a full squad you can now get some clarity on the pitch?

There is a huge focus on our matches coming up in the next couple of weeks, the bulk of the conditioning was done on the first two weeks and then it progressed to rugby conditioning. We have been working with the ball now for the last few weeks and it has been very much rugby focused. The first week was gym and running with no sign of a ball but it is great to be back now as normal.

You joined the academy last season, you were a year in the Academy before singing your first PRO contract. Tell me about what that year was like?

All the Academy staff are brilliant to work with, Mossy and Cully are unbelievable coaches and they work on your game to get you ready for PRO level. They really focus on the details and they are driven to make every player in the Academy better. I cannot thank the Academy staff enough for getting me into this position.

You trained a bit with the Seniors last year, this must have made it easier for you to transition?

I worked with both sets of coaches last year, I got to learn from Andy, Mossy, Nigel and Pete, I was getting as much information as I could and tried to prove myself as much as I could while I had the chance.

In terms of your goals for the next couple of weeks and heading into the Interpros, I am sure you will be looking to play a part in that?

I am hoping to get a starting jersey for the next couple of games and get the head down. There is a lot of quality in the back three this year, that competition is great as it pushes you as a player and as a team to be better. I will put my best foot forward and try my best.

Once the seasons starts in October, there will naturally be more injuries and some international games. Will you be looking at this as an opportunity to claim your spot?

Training is where you prove yourself as being a consistently good player, you would hope to get those opportunities before those games come around and try get as many matches as possible.

You are from Wicklow originally, have you got to experience much of Connacht since you moved here last year?

I really love living on this side of the country, I would holiday in Connemara with my family when I was younger. Not only is the place brilliant but the people are fantastic aswell. You can get a sense of community spirit when you walk around the town. You can see how much Connacht Rugby means to the community.

Whenever we do get supporters in the Sportsground I am sure you would like to be playing in front of your home supporters whenever that may happen?

Hopefully that is not too long away, the atmosphere in the Sportsground is incredible. You can sense how much it means to everyone and you can tell that it drives the team on and it is a big motivation for the team to impress the crowd and the supporters.

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.

Today we speak to Niall Murray, who’s in his first full season as a pro player after a breakthrough season in the Academy.

How have your first few weeks been back at The Sportsground, what has it been like?

It has been weird the first two weeks we were in groups of seven which were good fun, it made us closer. We had our fitness session on one of the first days back and the fact that there were only seven of us made it even more competitive and it was also a bit of fun. If it was the full squad it would have been a different story. There is a one-way system in the gym and everyone had a rack to themselves in the first few weeks and you felt you couldn’t talk to anyone properly. Since it has eased off it is getting better and the groups are getting bigger.

Was it tough training in quarantine and how did you find the whole experience being at home?

It was easier for me because I had my little brother Darragh who is on the Academy team to train with me. He kept me motivated and I tried to keep on top of him. We have been able to do scrummaging, passing, and out fitness together. I predicted that the lockdown was going to be happening a few weeks before so my two brothers and I started the process of setting up a home gym. We bought an Olympic barbell and loads of weights, we converted the unused shed at the back to a gym, which I was lucky to have.

You recently graduated from the Academy to the Pro Team, what would you say your overall experience was like in the Connacht Rugby academy?

I was lucky to get integrated last year because there was a second-row crisis, unlucky for some but I was grateful for getting the call. Ambrose Conboy helped me a lot, he helped me with the lineouts and made my journey that bit easier. I got integrated fairly early into my Academy years.

Who would you say was a massive influence in developing you as a player through the Academy?

Mossy helped me hugely with my skills and Cully Tucker took me for the age-grades when I was in school. Eric Elwood has been a massive help and the likes of Deidre Lyons and Aidan O’Flynn have helped me massively with the mental skills to progress in my career.

How did you end up in the Academy?

I played soccer and Gaelic football up to the age of 16. I didn’t start rugby until I was that age, I was fairly late coming onto the scene. I was lucky to get called into the Connacht U17 trial and I was a center at that time, I was halfway through the trial and one of the managers came over to me and asked me how I would feel about playing in the second row. Initially, I thought I haven’t a clue how to play there but I haven’t looked back since, I am grateful for him suggesting that change.

Our vision is grassroots to green shirts, How important is it that the pathway is there for players to continue to come up through the Academy into the first team?

It is always good to see a homegrown player coming in up through the age grades and then from the Sub Academy to the Academy and eventually getting a PRO contract. Even for me, I am very grateful for my managers who have helped me along the way.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

The three months of quarantine helped everyone to train and get their bodies back in the right state and get all those little niggles out. There are four second-rows in the squad at the moment, two will be starting and one will be on the bench so let’s hope that I get one of those three positions.

What would like to achieve with your first PRO season with Connacht rugby?

I have long term plans, I am only 20 years of age now and I am trying to get onto the starting team and if not on the bench. I want to make Andy Friend’s job a lot harder and give him headaches for that second-row position. I need to keep pushing on and fight for that starting position. It’s a two-year plan to get that second-row position nailed down and locked on.

What is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

I was offered to go to Florida to play Australian rules. I attended an AFL combine set up in Dublin by Tadhg Kennelly, three people were selected, I got chosen to go on the trip to Florida to play with the team during their Pre-Season and eventually could have moved to Australia to play. I was playing with the U18’s at the time and was just starting up so I decided to keep going with rugby instead.

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.
 
Today it’s the turn of the newest member of the prop club, Jack Aungier.
 

Jack welcome, how have your first few weeks been as a Connacht Rugby player?

I have settled in very well, the players and staff have made me feel very welcome here which has made the transition a lot easier. I would know a few of the lads from the Irish U20’s team which helped. Training has been tough but it is brilliant to get back into rugby and train as a team. A lot of it has been conditioning and gym sessions before this week, it is brilliant to be able to get back into the rugby part of things. I am looking forward to the games in August.

Normally you meet all coaches and players when you first start but for you, training started in smaller groups, was that strange?

We were in groups of seven at the start, I only ended up meeting everyone last week. It was our first time all together in one big group. It was strange having to clean the whole place down after being in the gym and maintaining a distance from the players and coaches, it took a bit of getting used to.

Do you feel being in the smaller groups allowed you to get to know people better?

The guys I am living with were in my initial group, I would have known them previously from the age-grade teams. I got to know Eoghan Masterson and Caolin Blade quite well. Eventually, I got to meet everyone as the weeks went on, everyone is easy to get on with.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

The S&C team put us through our paces for the first few weeks. The programme is slightly different from what I was used to in Leinster, it did take a bit of getting used to. I feel fit after the first month, coming into the rugby side of things, I am still coming around to all the plays and calls with Nigel, Pete, Jimmy, and Andy. I have gotten to know them well over the last few weeks and I am learning new things every week.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through the lock-down and everything?

My last game with Leinster was 5 months ago and when I left the building I didn’t know it was going to my last time. That is the way professional rugby goes and you must move on. I was looking forward to getting started with Connacht. The last month has been brilliant for me.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

I think props tend to mingle with each other straight away, they are all great lads and there is great competition there. I know Andy mentioned that there isn’t much of a pecking order, that tight head position is up for grabs. I am certainly looking forward to competing with those lads over the next two years.

What would like to achieve with Connacht?

My aim is to get on the team every week, it’s a competitive position. My goal is to play as much as I can whether that is starting or from the bench. I want to build up my experience and my overall goal is to win a league with Connacht, that’s why we play the game. From talking to the coaches there is a competitive squad here that can win the PRO14 and compete in Europe.

Final question, have you experienced much of Connacht and Galway since you got here?

I have been out and around a good bit, I want to make sure I get out and explore on my days off. I want to experience that culture, it is different to the East of Ireland. It has been brilliant so far.

Every day we’re shining a light on one of our newest arrivals over the summer, and help you get to know each of them before we return to the field later in the month.
 
Yesterday we kicked it off with Sammy Arnold, and now you can hear from another Munster arrival, Alex Wootton.
 

How have the first few weeks in Connacht Rugby been for you?

Everybody has welcomed me with open arms, from coming through the gates meeting Kenny and Dave the groundsmen through the squad up to Andy and the coaches. Everyone is easy to get on with even through these tricky times, they have all made it work and made the whole experience seamless. I think on my first day I was added to 100 Whatsapp groups which was great because it is where I got a lot of the information.

Are you slowly getting to know everyone despite the restrictions?

The first weeks we were in smaller groups so we were drip-fed into it, it would have been harder to have been pushed into the deep end and try to get to know everyone at the same time. It was easier for me to learn names in the smaller groups, it gets harder as the group gets bigger. It was a blessing as I wouldn’t be naturally gifted at remembering names. The academy players returned this week so I have been trying to learn off their names too. It is convenient having the Connacht website to flick through the names, I will get there in the end.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through lock-down and everything?

Talks started for me back in January and then COVID came. Everything was so uncertain, I tried to put it at the back of my mind, it was tricky trying to do that when you are boxed in a house. My partner returned to work around 2 months ago which was hard because I had a lot of time by myself where I thought “What am I going to be doing? Am I going to be staying at Munster or joining Connacht?” Luckily, it all worked out in the end.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

I have to say that they are very diligent in what they do and the emphasis they put on people’s roles and skills while also letting the players to suss things out themselves which I find is always the best way to do things. It is very player lead and very much an open forum when it comes to opinions and things like that. I think the coaches have a great balance there. Even though there are no physical meetings, we still have them over Zoom. Even with the Zoom calls, everything is still clear, cut, and precise and I think the messages are easily understood. There is going to be a quick turn around with the two games in the Aviva in August, hopefully, by then we will be hitting the ground running.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

It’s been so long since we all played rugby and we are all dying to get out there and play. There is a lot of competition especially in the back three and throughout the backline. The games are one thing, you obviously want to play well in a game that’s why we train but if we all put our best feet forward on a day to day basis we can all grow together. I can bring what I know to the table along with the younger and older lads, we can grow together and become better to make Connacht a better place and a better team. Whoever is in form or playing well at that time will get the nod but it is very much a team focus and not necessarily the individual.

Have you got to experience much of Connacht and the West of Ireland since you moved here?

I am living part-time in Galway with Conor Oliver and Sammie Arnold, the rest of the week is spent in my house in Limerick. I have not seen much of Galway before, my fiancée came up to visit me last weekend and we squashed into the box room in the house in Barna with the two dogs. We got to explore a few places and went out to see part of Connemara. I want to see a lot more of it as I am always hearing great things about the different places to see. It is great to be able to explore places that are right on our doorstep.

What do you think you would like to achieve with Connacht Rugby?

I have signed a one-year deal so come June/July next year, hopefully, I can contribute to putting the club in a position where we are in knockout rugby. I would also look to help players in Connacht whether it’s on-field or off-field and bring what I can to the table and vice versa. If I am speaking to you this time next year, I would like to look back and to say I helped a lot of people and the club is in a better place. That would be one of my goals and something I would feel happy about. I want to play rugby, enjoy it and see what the future holds. But at the end of the day, it is a team sport, you put the team first, work towards that goal and normally good things happen.

Lastly, what is an interesting fact about you that the Connacht supporters would not know?

This is where I tell people that I am quite a boring person! Up until the age of 13, I had to decide between football and rugby. Now I wouldn’t say I was as promising as Jack Caty getting trials but I guess I will never know where it could have gone.

With 13 new faces to the Connacht Rugby pro squad for 2020-21 season, there are plenty players for the supporters to look forward to seeing in action in the months ahead.
 
Starting today for the next 13 days, we’ll introduce you to our newest arrivals and allow you to learn a bit about each of them.
 
First up? Irish international centre Sammy Arnold who joins from Munster Rugby!
 

How have your first few weeks been as a Connacht Rugby player?

It has been really enjoyable, I moved into my house in Barna with Conor and Alex a couple of weeks ago. It’s good to be back training again, throwing the rugby ball around and going back to normal life.

It must have been a strange first week going in and being in such a small group and not even being able to shake hands?

It was strange only meeting a handful of the lads but I ended up getting to know them very well which was one benefit. It integrated me into the group a bit slower which was nice and got to know those lads a lot more personally. We are back into a big group now and I am getting my head around the brand of rugby that Connacht wants to play.

The training has increased as the weeks have gone on, are you now at a stage where you have met all the players and all the coaches?

Training has ramped up this week so I have met all the coaches and players at this stage. We are back doing full 15 stuff on the pitch. For me, that is the most exciting thing because you can get a feel for the team. You can now throw the ball around and have a bit of fun whereas in the smaller groups there would be more gym or skills sessions.

Was it tough waiting for pre-season to start knowing you’re joining a new club but at the same time going through lock-down and everything?

The season finished very abruptly which happened to everyone who was moving club. I switched over to Connacht during the lock-down knowing that I would be playing with them in August if the games were restarting and luckily they will. It was a quick change and I said my goodbyes over Zoom and was ready to move forward.

How have you found working with the coaches and S&C teams?

In the initial stages, I had been working closely with Dave Howarth. Since getting back I have met Johnny and Barry, the S&C team are incredible. In terms of getting back on the pitch, Nigel coached me with the Irish U20’s so I would know him well. I have known Jimmy since I was young as well, so it is great being able to work with them both. There is a lot of clarity coming from the coaches on what they want from us. Pete Wilkins is driving the defence hard and it’s something I am excited to be part of it going forward.

There’s a lot of competition for places in your position so I presume you’re all eager to impress ahead of the Interpros?

There is competition no matter where you go, if you are playing the best consistently then you are going to start. It is up to myself when I get the opportunity to consistently perform and whoever is playing the best will get the starting jersey regardless. That is something that really excited me from speaking with Friendy.

If you were selected for the match against Munster how do you think you would find it?

It would be strange, especially if there are no fans in the stadium. I always like to play hard and play with my heart on my sleeve. It would be an exciting game and I would be looking forward to playing against some of the lads for sure.

What would you like to achieve with Connacht?

I am at the age now where I am not a kid anymore, I am 24 now, it’s time to kick on a bit and become a provincial starter. There is a lot of competition in the midfield, but I will aim to perform as best I can.

Have you got to experience much of Connacht and the West of Ireland since you moved?

I have been to some of the beaches like Silverstrand, the drive in from Barna to the Sportsground is amazing. It is great to witness those views on the drive into work in the morning. Maybe in the winter, it will be different, but I am looking forward to more exploring once we get a bit of time off.

Living with the two lads from Munster must be a great help to get you settled into a new club?

It makes it easier; I have played with Conor since I was 16 and he was 17, we have played together for the guts of 8 years, which has been good. I have played with Alex for four years and played with Stephen Fitzgerald since U20’s. They are all guys I know well; it makes the transition easier when you can speak to someone consistently. It is been great having people who are in the club already to rely on them for information.

Finally, it is likely going to be a while before you get to play in a packed house in the Sportsground but I am sure you will be looking forward to that time when it happens and getting to mingle with the fans?

I am massively looking forward to it. From playing at The Sportsground a few times you can tell it is a very personal stadium, the fans are very connected with the players and it is a very close community. It is something I am looking forward to experiencing it and getting to know the supporters and hopefully performing for them on the pitch which is the most important thing.

Related

Get to Know: Jordan Duggan

Bundee Aki to become latest Connacht centurion in Guinness PRO14 return against Ulster
AWootton

Bundee Aki to become latest Connacht centurion in Guinness PRO14 return against Ulster

1 month ago
Get To Know: Conor Dean
CDean

Get To Know: Conor Dean

1 month ago
Get to Know: Peter Sullivan
GetToKnow

Get to Know: Peter Sullivan

2 months ago