Irish by birth, Munster by Grace of God

Munster’s rugby Academy isn’t just a window to the future — it’s a key ingredient for ongoing success for the province. In the last of a four-part series on the up-and-comers vying for Munster’s Academy player of the year award, back-row Eoghan Grace spoke with Alan Good.

HE started off at full-back, then moved into the front row, before eventually finding a home at openside flanker. If versatility’s your man, then Eoghan Grace is his big brother.

The childhood days when the Clonmel man was seemingly happy to try his hand in any position have been left behind, but he still epitomises the modern rugby player — just as comfortable throwing a skip pass as he is foraging for the ball on the deck.

That skill set has been instrumental in Grace’s rise through the ranks into the Munster Academy, and also helps explain why he has worn the green shirt in both the seven- and 15-man codes, and was able to fill in at inside centre when his club, Shannon, had a midfield injury crisis earlier this year.

“I’d played in the backs with Clonmel, but then I went to Rockwell College, where we’d the option of being either a back or a forward,” he explains

“I said I’d go for the forwards for a change, but I didn’t know it would be the front row! I moved to six for the Junior Cup and have been in the back row since.”

While he never managed to win either of the major schools cup competitions during his Rockwell days, happier times weren’t long coming for the 21-year-old.

Offered a scholarship at UCD, he instead found his head turned towards Shannon at the last minute, by none other than Munster legends Mick Galway and Pat Whelan, and later would be part of the Ireland U-20 team that claimed a Grand Slam in 2007.

“Getting Mick Galway ringing you up and asking ‘what can we do to get you to come down?’ — that’s a big deal when you’re 18 or 19,” Grace recalls.

“There’s a huge history at the club, and everyone talks about it. You walk into the clubhouse and see all the pictures of winning teams, and you want to be part of that history.”

There are few better places to be picking up advice, while Grace also shares the general view of Munster’s next generation that the current stars are all forthcoming with words of wisdom. Given the Rockwell connection, he also has ear of a certain Denis Leamy, who he admits has hero status at his alma mater.

“I remember I went back to the school last year to give them my jersey after winning the Grand Slam with the Irish U-20s, and he (Leamy) came along to gee up the senior cup team. Everyone looks forward to seeing him,” he explains.

“I met Denis in the school and he pulled me aside. I asked him a few questions about nutritionists and things like that. Jerry Flannery and Ian Dowling always have good, helpful things to say too. It’s not like the Gaillimh era where you were told you were useless until you proved otherwise!

“They show a good interest in you at least, and I find that with the Shannon guys especially, they seem to want to befriend their own.”

In terms of putting all that into practice, Grace says being able to fit in seamlessly when called upon to train with the senior squad is of paramount importance.

“You’ve got to be able to fill in and not make a show of yourself,” he says with a smile. “There is a bit of pressure because you don’t want to make mistakes. But they don’t want to see you looking like you’re under pressure, they want to see you filling in and doing the job, because you’re hopefully going to be the future of the team.”

Munster isn’t the only high-stakes environment that Grace has immersed himself in this season. Having helped Ireland to a fourth-placed finish at the European Sevens Championship in Hanover in Germany last year, he spent a whirlwind few days in Dubai for the World Cup last month.

“It was a super experience,” he chirps. “It was just the lap of luxury in Dubai, and we were playing in front of huge crowds, up to 50,000 people. You’re in the pressure-cooker but that’s where you want to be.”

Down the line, Grace hopes the attributes that endeared him to Ireland Sevens coach Joe Skurr will also turn the head of Munster coach Tony McGahan.

“Hopefully he (McGahan) is keeping an eye on skills and speed, because that’s what I think I’m able to offer, so I’m hoping that’s his main vision. I seem to be making progress every year, so fingers crossed.

“You see what Wally (David Wallace) and Leamy do week-in, week-out at such a high level, that’s what you want to aspire to. Richie McCaw is brilliant too, he’s the ultimate out-and-out seven; the people hate him for what he does best, he lives on the edge.”

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