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Rebuilding Dan Leavy

Gavin Cummiskey

  • Interviews

Rare does one patch of grass produce two generational players at the same time. St Michael’s College, in leafy south Dublin, has managed just that. 

There is a slight problem. Besides 2018, Irish rugby’s annus mirabilis, the already distinguished careers of Dan Leavy and James Ryan keep passing each other like ships in the night. 

Rare does one patch of grass produce two generational players at the same time. St Michael’s College, in leafy south Dublin, has managed just that. 

There is a slight problem. Besides 2018, Irish rugby’s annus mirabilis, the already distinguished careers of Dan Leavy and James Ryan keep passing each other like ships in the night. 

Just as Leavy recovers from a horrific knee injury, sustained in April 2019, Ryan goes and dislocates his shoulder. 

Anything seems possible when they are paired together in the same pack. Should the Grand Slam, quickly followed by scaling European club rugby’s highest peak, remain their greatest achievements in tandem, Andy Farrell’s Ireland could be entering a period of mediocrity. 

Even Saracens were unable to defend the Leavy-Ryan one-two punch during the 2018 Champions Cup quarter-final; game on the line, middle of the Aviva pitch, 30 metres out, Leavy slips into scrum half, popping ball for Ryan who draws two defenders before giving his older school pal a clean gallop under the posts. 

In the blink of an eye they pick-pocketed the meanest defence in England. 

Dan Leavy try Vs Saracens

“I’ve always been aware of him but we never played together,” said Leavy of Ryan, as the rookies floated through that momentous campaign. “When I was in sixth year he was in third year so I always kind of knew he was a bit of a freak. 

“He has had a few injuries, same as myself, which kind of stalled him a little bit, but he is a great player. Weird lad but a great player.”

The constant, breakneck pace at which both men play the game comes at a price. 

The 24 year-old Ryan has suffered two serious wounds as a professional. His recent surgery was preceded by a serious hamstring tear playing for UCD not long after leading the under-20s World Cup final in 2016. This meant his first Ireland cap arrived before he donned Leinster blue (in a weird sub-plot, the rangy lock even played one match for Munster). 

James Ryan recovered to become one of the best players in the world while Leavy still trades off 2018.  

Truth be told, the 26 year-old has been ravaged by injury. This sparks easy comparisons to David Pocock, Sam Warburton and Sean O’Brien but Leavy cannot be added to a conversation about the great modern day opensides – not yet anyway – even if he undoubtedly mines the same dark caverns.

“Dan plays at such a high pace,” said Greg McWilliams, current head coach of Rugby United New York, who coached him in St Michael’s. “He goes where his mind believes it should be but the body does not belong in those places. That’s the way he plays, right on the line.”

This Grand Slam number seven – a title that only belongs to two other Irish men and one woman – is primed to define whatever remains of a hugely promising career. 

The odds of a successful return are stacked against him. You see, Leavy hasn’t played rugby for 17 months. Surgical advancements have mended NFL linebackers from mangled knees similar to what he sustained in that helter-skelter Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster. 

Cause and effect: the breakdown was not being policed to a standard that protected the poacher. Leavy required two operations, the second leaving him hospitalized for six days, to repair the multi-ligament shredding. 

There are no guarantees about the final destination of his rugby journey but each surgery shortens the distance. And sliced ligaments almost always reduce a flanker’s effectiveness. 

Ask Warburton, O’Brien, Pocock.   

In the 2010 Leinster schools cup final a skinny number six looked the best backrow on the field despite only being 15

Nobody knows what version of Dan Leavy will reappear but we do know what he had become. Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day 2018 and against England in Dublin the previous year showcased the maturation of a prodigious talent.  

It was easy to write about Dan Leavy the teenager. He dominated matches like few before or since. In the 2010 Leinster schools cup final a skinny number six looked the best backrow on the field despite only being 15. He was two years younger than three opponents who went on to become professionals. One of whom is Tadhg Beirne. 

“In 2010 our senior squad were missing a few key positions so we went to watch the thirds or it could have been a Fourth XV match over in Blackrock,” McWilliams remembers, “Dan was just out of junior cup and not really interested in going into another year of serious rugby. But he was so good that we sat him down in the office and asked would he be interested in joining the seniors? He wasn’t sure so I rang his dad to tell him we need to work together as Dan has the potential to be a professional rugby player. 

“A week later he came down to Cork with us and started on the seconds. At half-time we had an injury so I went over to see who was standing out. Everyone pointed to Dan. He came up, came on and never looked back.

“Kelvin Leahy – the former Leinster backrower who was back teaching in Michael’s – had a big role in guiding him off the field,” McWilliams continued. “Talent is one aspect of an athlete making it to the highest level but you need a good support base at home and the right attitude in all aspects of your life to have any chance.” 

Consistency is talent?   

“Exactly.”

LSSC Final 2012

Leahy made sure Leavy towed the line but the teenager wasn’t long taking responsibility for the lack of trophies in the St Michael’s cabinet. Despite an ever increasing flow of quality players coming from the school, Leavy led them to only their second Leinster schools title in 2012. 

In the final he literally pried victory away from a Clongowes Wood College side that included the Byrne twins, Ed (Leinster) and Bryan (Bristol Bears), in his last game before turning professional. It’s a performance that will stand the test of time. 

The future many people like McWilliams envisioned – what prompted him to phone Donal Leavy 10 years ago – was beginning to unfold. 

But injuries kept stalling what had seemed an inevitable rise. After being named Ireland under-20s captain he disappeared from view. By 22, having yet to establish himself in the Leinster team, he cut a frustrated figure.   

Dan is a cracking footballer with a touch of mutant strength

– Jamie Heaslip, former Ireland No 8

“Dan is a cracking footballer with a touch of mutant strength,” said Jamie Heaslip. “I remember when he first came on the scene he was unbelievably enthusiastic at training, so we did what we normally do and pucked the head off him a couple of times to see how he handled it. He kept coming back for more. Not a fight. Just kept coming back. That’s what you want. He has an edge.”

Sean O’Brien was still in the way, Jordi Murphy had earned the trust of the Irish coach and Josh van der Flier was evolving into Mr Athleticism. 

Still, people wanted to see an Ireland team with O’Brien and Leavy causing enough havoc to make CJ Stander seem like a luxury signing from South Africa. 

The attritional nature of the game ruined this plan, and showed the value of bringing the big Western Cape farmer to Limerick and Bundee Aki to Galway. Durability and raw power are not a natural part of the Irish man’s genetic make-up. The constantly interrupted careers of Stephen Ferris and O’Brien provide obvious examples with Heaslip and Paul O’Connell exceptions that prove the rule. That said, both former Ireland captains were forced into premature retirement.  

Leavy has “mutant” strength coupled with a mongrel demeanour to dive into opposition rucks and lock onto the ball. He also possesses a rugby intellect that can alter the flow of games but you need luck to avoid severe damage when routinely mimicking a human torpedo. 

Ideally 2018 will not stand alone; it won’t be Leavy’s only victory in Twickenham or the Stade de France; it won’t be his only European medal. Ideally the best is still to come. 

Leavy was injured, yet again, when the All Blacks were felled in November 2018 – Peter O’Mahony filled the void – and in early 2019 he struggled to reach the standards he had set for himself.  

Dan Leavy
Dan Leavy and James Ryan could be a dream duo for Ireland (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“When you get to know Dan you see a terrific guy but he’s as stubborn as they come,” said McWilliams. “Only a stubborn person can show the resolve and the hunger we have seen from him to come back from such a bad injury.”

The incident is worth reliving to provide referees, coaches and parents the world over with a textbook example of why clearing rucks via side entry must be punished with a heavy sanction. 

“I dislocated my knee cap inwards” Leavy told Newstalk’s Joe Molloy last year. “ACL and PCL were gone. And a good bit of damage to MCL and LCL so I had to get them repaired up.” 

The whistle only sounded because his prone body was blocking the play.

Neatly enough, it was Leavy and Ryan making a double tackle on big Stuart McCloskey in the exact spot the St Michael’s duo combined to sink Saracens the year before.  

“He is aggressive and offloads like a Fijian. He has the ‘X Factor’ Ireland need to be successful.

Leavy was getting set to swallow McCloskey and the ball whole when bowled over by Ulster prop Wiehahn Herbst. The South African came in from the side and went off his feet but blame should not be laid at his door. The player will instinctively know how each law is interpreted in the heat of battle. Herbst knew he wouldn’t be punished for removing Leavy with his team in possession and moving forward. His primary role in that instant was to ensure the defender could not slow or steal possession.  

Officiating around the ruck is expected to undergo radical change in the coming months after World Rugby asked two of the sport’s brightest coaching minds, Joe Schmidt and Richie Gray, to re-educate the referees.  

Still, what has been lost can never be rediscovered. Leavy had to scratch one of his prime years from a very short career. His employers suffered too. A few weeks later Leinster were unable to slow Billy Vunipola off a five metre scrum in the Champions Cup final. Leavy would have been first man up to embrace the England number eight. Financially the injury stung the most as one of the premier IRFU contracts went elsewhere. Oh and the 2019 World Cup passed him by to the chagrin of Ireland fans everywhere..

As Leavy was recuperating, O’Brien’s hips screamed “enough!” ending his phenomenal international innings and considering Simon Zebo had taken his panache to Paris, Ireland went to Japan sans three rare gems. 

Dan Leavy
Dan Leavy sucks up the atmosphere after the 2018 win over England (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Far too many bolts came loose in 2019. Camp Schmidt went from cutting edge to chore-laden, happy go lucky to paranoia drenched. The Schmidt era in Irish rugby – a decade that yielded untouchable success – ended with a humiliating defeat to the All Blacks in Tokyo not long after Japan beat them off the hill in Shizuoka.  

What might have been is a torturous pursuit, but it’s hard not to linger over such a dramatic collapse in performance levels by Ireland. 

“You can see the influence Dan has on those around him by just being on the field,” said McWilliams, who also coached the US Eagles attack at the World Cup. “Ireland missed his dynamism. Our recruitment for New York ahead of next season centres around explosive players that can make things happen – in that vein the best teenager I ever coached was Dan Leavy. 

“You know you have a special player when his actions create an environment for others to excel. CJ Stander and Robbie Henshaw spring to mind. Maybe at the World Cup Dan’s work off the ball would have allowed CJ to make a quick carry before the defence could set or he’d get his hands free for Robbie to pick a line that would have made a difference.”  

“Getting very close now,” tweeted the man himself.

Fingers crossed Dan Leavy, the sequel, is coming to our screens sooner than later.