Departing Deegan seeking a ‘final’ goodbye

Photo: Ric McLallen

Let’s be clear. Nothing should stand in the way of a young Australian rugby player taking up the offer of a professional contract overseas – particularly in light of yesterday’s confirmation from the ARU that they are ‘discontinuing’ the Super Rugby licence held by the Western Force.

For any young talent, the chance to live the dream of a professional career in a sport they love is a wonderful thing. But right now, living in a country that is about to cull around 35 of those golden opportunities is a bit of a handicap for an aspiring rugby player. And as a result, I may need to form a template for stories such as these:

Promising young talent comes through the ranks?

Bides his time in the ‘system’ awaiting an opportunity? 

Heads overseas when nothing eventuates and the sport seems at risk of professional implosion? 

And using the Bill Meakes model, you could add to that:

Proves his worth in another competition? 

Lured back three years later for a contract he should have been offered in the first place? 

Has one season of Super Rugby before his team is expunged? √!!!

But I digress.

Having seen a migration of playmaking talent in recent times, you can now add the name of Andrew Deegan to that of Sam Greene, Jake McIntyre and Paul Asquith – some of the best young creative backs in the country, let alone the East coast – as the Randwick no.10 prepares to continue his rugby apprenticeship away from our shores with Connacht in Ireland.

Another graduate of the rugby nursery that is St Josephs College in Hunters Hill, Deegan went on to play for NSW Schoolboys, for Randwick colts straight out of school, and for the newly-formed NSW 20’s side for a couple of years, before making his grade debut for the Coogee-based club side in 2015. He was also a key figure in the Australian U20’s side that competed at the Junior World Cup in the same year.

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Playing for Australia Schools against Fiji in 2013 – Photo: SPA Images

A truly mercurial figure at times, Deegan is one of those players running around in clubland that every now and then gets you out of your seat and applauding, irrespective of any particular allegiance. Since cementing his spot in 1st grade last season after a few mouth-watering cameos the year before, the 22-year-old has blossomed, finishing the 2016 season as the leading points-scorer in the Shute Shield with 210, guiding the Galloping Greens into the finals, and helping the NSW Country Eagles to the NRC grand final, before backing it up with another 180pts for the Wicks so far in 2017.

Part of a posse of young talent that has come through the Randwick ranks in recent years – add in the Kellaway twins, Andrew and Nick; former Waratah and new Melbourne Rebel David Horwitz; Force halfback Mitch Short, and of course, Waratah and Wallaby enforcer Ned Hanigan – Deegan’s ascension to the NSW Waratahs’ wider training squad this year, as back up to Bernard Foley and Bryce Hegarty, was a given off the back of his club exploits. But sitting behind one of the top three number 10’s in the world on form – add Foley to Beauden Barrett and Johnny Sexton – can be both an inspiring and forlorn existence.

“It is hard to get a crack at a start, and that’s frustrating in some sense, but I guess you can also look at it as a blessing,” Deegan told Behind the Ruck earlier this week. “I got to watch Bernard train nearly every day and learn a lot off him, see his routine and find out how he views the game. I would go to him, bounce ideas off him to see what he thinks, and because he’s been in the professional environment a lot longer than me, he would let me know when some things will work in club footy but not as well in the professional game for example.

“He talks about going to the line and then the space outside you will open up for others, and he believes you’ve got to be a running threat before anything else, because if you’re not, the opposition aren’t going to defend you, so you’re lining up the players outside you to get whacked,” he continues. “But while you know he’s ahead of you, you get to push yourself because you’re training against him every day, and you try to work out what it is that he’s doing better than I am, or if there is anything I might be better than him at. It’s been a great learning opportunity.”

Realistically, if the no.10 in a side is performing well, the understudy can only wait for an injury to get any hope of a start, as it is unlikely that a back-up pivot will ever get a bench spot. As a result, Deegan’s chances to shine in the Cambridge Blue jersey of his home state have been few and far between, with only a few pre-season trial match appearances; a run in the Brisbane 10’s back in February, and a hit-out against Suntory Sungoliath in the Waratahs trip to Japan during the recent test series window, to look back on.

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Deegan celebrates his first Waratahs ‘cap’ with fellow Galloping Greens Andrew Kellaway, Dave Horwitz and Reece Robinson

After a couple of years waiting in the wings, the writing was probably on the wall for Deegan’s future as a Waratah in round six of this year’s Super Rugby competition. Set to face the table-topping Crusaders, and with Bernard Foley ruled out through concussion and Bryce Hegarty seemingly out of favour, the Tahs turned to another Australian U20 starlet, Mack Mason, to pick up the gauntlet in the Wallaby star’s absence. It was a decision Deegan took admirably on the chin, but also one that forced a rethink about where his future may lie.

“It was obviously a frustration but at the time, Mack was probably playing better footy than me, and I was told by the coaches that he suited the dynamic of the team at that stage,” he concedes. “But my duty is to help the team prepare for every weekend, and once I heard the news, I guess you’ve just got to take it and move forward.

“The frustration is there that I didn’t get an opportunity to put my best foot forward in a Super Rugby game, but it’s hard to jump a bloke who’s been in career-best form for the last couple of years. There’s a lot of frustration for a lot of fringe players around Australia with the whole saga of five teams to four, and I guess a lot of players are thinking ‘How long can I wait before I have to make a decision myself?’

“I wasn’t looking overseas but when an opportunity came, I couldn’t say no to it. My manager was approached throughout the year and I got wind of it a couple of months ago because one of Connacht’s 10’s was leaving. It went back and forwards for a couple of months and I guess, the closer it came to being finalised, the more realistic the option was. The timing suits me and Connacht looks to be a pretty good team to be heading to right now, playing in an expanding competition with a high quality of rugby.”

Based in the harbour city of Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, Connacht had been the poor relations of Irish provincial rugby until very recently. Competing against the history, traditions and relative financial might of Munster, Leinster and Ulster, they rarely enjoyed the pick of the crop when it came to talent, and struggled manfully against the odds as a result. They even had to fight off a proposition to shut them down by the Irish Rugby Football Union in 2003, only a public protest involving 2,000 fans marching on the IRFU headquarters in Dublin and the threat of a strike by the Players Association, reversing the decision.

But results on the field didn’t improve. Joining the newly formed Celtic League in 2001/02, a competition containing the provincial sides of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, Connacht were often found near the bottom of the ladder by season’s end. By the time the Italians joined the party in 2010, and the newly named Pro 12 was launched in 2011, they were still yet to finish a season above any of their national rivals.

When former Samoan international Pat Lam took up the reins in 2013, they had nothing to show for their toils in the professional era, while Ireland’s ‘big three’ had racked up eight domestic titles and seven European trophies between them. But the rise under the ex-Blues coach was meteoric. After a couple of seasons bedding in his expansive philosophies – anathema to most previous regimes given the wet and wild conditions that often prevail around Galway’s Sportsground – Connacht not only finished above Munster and Ulster for the first time in the regular season in 2016, they also went on to beat Leinster in the Pro 12 final and become champions, playing arguably the most attractive rugby in Europe in the process.

Connacht_Pro 12 Champions 2016

Connacht celebrate the Pro 12 title in 2016

Last year’s title defence was curtailed by a horrific injury toll and the mid-season announcement by Lam that he would be moving to cashed-up Bristol in England for 2017/18. But the club’s affiliation with New Zealand coaches has continued – Warren Gatland and Glenn Ross had both served before Lam – with Chiefs assistant coach Kieran Keane being named as the new man in charge for this season.

Given the recent success it has procured, the interest levels around Galway’s rugby fraternity it has imbued, and the way the Chiefs have played the game in recent years, a continuation of the exciting ball-in-hand mantra from coach Keane will be just what the doctor ordered – for both the Connacht faithful, and their soon-to-be-arriving Australian flyhalf. He’s ready to rip in.

“I can’t wait to see what he’s going to bring,” Deegan says of Keane. “Playing at Randwick, we love to play an attacking style, I love to play an attacking style, and the Chiefs are a very attacking side, so hopefully that means a bit of ball in hand and we get to use it quite a bit. There’s been a recent tradition of playing with the ball at Connacht, so hopefully I can add something to that.

“I haven’t met any of the guys yet obviously, but having won it two seasons ago and then finished mid-table last season – off the back of a lot of injuries – I guess there’s maybe a bit of frustration there and an excitement about getting back to where they were when they won it, and I can’t wait to join that program. With the league and cup competitions there’s a lot of games, so hopefully there’s plenty of opportunity for me to string a few together. Over recent years I’ve been pretty fortunate with injuries, so hopefully I can stay injury-free and get a few opportunities to play in different competitions in different countries. It’s very exciting.”

Exciting indeed. As the fall-out from Super Rugby’s revamping continues Down Under, the Pro 12 has been the beneficiary, with the two axed South African sides, the Cheetahs and Kings, successfully applying to join the competition with immediate effect, and a reformatted, two-conference Pro 14 kicks-off on September 1st. There is even talk of an expansion into North America in the very near future.

So what are Connacht getting for their Euros? While Deegan cites Bernard Foley as one of the players he has tried to model himself on – he was also a big fan of Matt Giteau and Carlos Spencer – the similarities between the way both players approach the game are noticeable. And there is no-one better placed to talk about that than Randwick Director of Rugby, Nick Ryan.

Having overseen the ascension from colts to grade and beyond for Deegan and the aforementioned Kellaway, Hanigan et al, Ryan’s previous role as Sydney University Director of Colts also saw him guide the likes of a young Foley and Nick Phipps through the transition of schools potential to future Wallaby. He is unswerving in his joint appraisal.

“Both are selfless, team first, durable and always dependable people, and that character is reflected in how they play – you can’t separate the person and the player,” says Ryan. “When they play well they orchestrate and create for others, and that generates such an enormous respect in the group because their success in turn creates it for others. They make other people’s jobs easier.

“They both hardly ever miss a game or training session, they turn up every week and play tough and bravely for the team, and they do the hard work and put their head in the wrong places for no other reason than it is best for the team. Their tactical understanding is so strong – often they play like an extra coach on the field – and they have a good understanding of the detail of the game and how to think on their feet, especially under pressure.

“They are good characters around the team and are not far from the centre of the social group, celebrating the good times but staying tighter around the group in the tough ones. I have been so fortunate to work with both of them and have such huge respect for them both. They have helped not only build great teams, but helped to build great clubs. That is their legacy, not just what they did on the footy field, but how they did it and why they did it make them very special people and players.”

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Deegan on the run for the Wicks – Photo: Ric McLallen

Ryan is also under no illusions as to the benefits to both club and player that the impending move for Deegan will bring.

“To use a study analogy, the Shute Shield/Australian rugby is like being an undergraduate,” he explains. “But Europe will give him a postgraduate experience in rugby because of the different styles of rugby depending on the weather, the international flavour of playing in the Champions Cup with foreign players and coaches, and the sheer amount of footy he will play that will just make him a better player.

“Look at examples of guys who have flourished in Europe who were pigeonholed as just ‘club players’ – Chris Malone, Dan Parks, Paul Warwick, Brock James to name but a few at 10 who were standouts in Europe when given an opportunity and a clean slate. I think ‘Deegs’ will go really well over there and continue to evolve and improve his game, and who knows where that will take him either here or abroad? But whoever does get him will get a simply outstanding young man and a bloody good rugby player.”

But while Connacht fans drool with excitement off the back of that informed and passionate recommendation, exactly when Deegan heads off to the Emerald Isle is still uncertain as he awaits his travel visa. And with a Shute Shield Qualifying Final on the agenda this afternoon against Warringah, his immediate focus is on helping Randwick take another step towards a first grand final appearance since 2010, and a first Premiership since 2004.

Naturally, given the time and effort he has invested in the project, he hopes to be able to play a part in Randwick’s finals run for as long as possible. But with the revamped Pro 14 season kicking off in just three weeks, the reality is that he will be heading off as soon as his visa is sorted to familiarise himself with his new home, and to get a bit of Connacht’s pre-season training under his belt. All of which makes this afternoon’s clash with the Rats all the more-important.

“We are quite keen to get up to Rat Park, I think they have all four grades playing at home, so it’s a big day for their club,” he says. “Obviously we were a little disappointed that we don’t get to play in front of a local crowd, because you really can’t beat Coogee Oval at 3pm on a sunny afternoon. However, we’ve embraced the opportunity to play away, and at the end of the day it’s 15 v 15 on a rugby pitch. We know what we need to do and come Saturday, we just need to put it out on the park.”

The reason they don’t have the benefit of home advantage was the disappointing loss to in-form Southern Districts last Saturday in the final round of the regular season, a defeat that relegated them from 2nd spot on the ladder to 4th. But it was a disappointment that has had to be dealt with, and moved on from, fairly quickly.

“We addressed the game earlier on in the week, reviewed it, and took the learnings from it,” confirms Deegan. “Credit to Souths, they took most of the possession, however, we probably did let a really good opportunity slip. The positive from the weekend is that most of our tries came from the style and the way we want to play our footy, we only needed to get a bit more of the ball and the result may have gone the other way. A major focus for us this week is what we are going to do and want to do, and how we adapt throughout the game, because rarely does a finals game go perfect for either team.

“We know the Rats’ strengths are playing a quick tempo game and they look to their leaders for big plays, so obviously we have looked at that a little bit. But as I mentioned before, we have put a lot of focus on ourselves about what we want to do, and what we are going to do. Both teams will come with their own game plans and strategies, then it’s just a matter of who adapts the most and who wants it more. Hopefully, we will see two teams playing a very exciting brand of footy.”

With Deegan’s impending departure and some uncertainty around the make-up of the coaching ticket for 2018, there is a growing opinion from outside the Randwick circle – and indeed, from some on the inside – that it is time for this group to stand up and deliver. It’s not exactly a ‘now-or-never’ situation, but a squad of young talent that has been nurtured by DoR Ryan and head coach Shannon Fraser over the last three years, has never been in a better position to strike for home. With that expectation, perhaps comes an added pressure, but it’s not something Deegan subscribes to.

“I don’t think there’s any extra pressure on us at all, there’s more a desire and a want if anything, floating around. A lot of these boys have been playing together for a few years now and we’re keen to finish off a really strong year, not just us as a 1st grade side, but as a whole club. Randwick are the only club to get seven from seven teams in the grade/colts finals, and now it’s just a matter of finishing off and putting some silverware in the cabinet.”

Whether it is to be his swansong in the myrtle green, or another chapter on the road to bigger things, cherish the sight of the diminutive, blonde-locked no.10 calling the shots this afternoon. His absence will be keenly felt when he goes.

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