Fanning: AIL full of guys ready to take next step

Leinster’s Darragh Fanning believes there are plenty like him playing club rugby who are ready, willing and more than able to do a job for any of the four professional provincial sides.

Fanning: AIL full of guys ready to take next step

Fanning has featured four times for the RaboDirect Pro12 and Amlin Challenge Cup champions this term, twice in pre-season and again in recent weeks against Scarlets and Ospreys, having been seconded over the summer from his duties with St Mary’s.

George North and Eli Walker are among those to have hugged the same touchline as the 26-year-old so far, but he has yet to cough up a try to his opposing wing and has fitted more or less seamlessly into Matt O’Connor’s side.

“There is tons of talent in the AIL if you talk to the lads here [at Leinster] who play in it when they are not getting games here,” said Fanning, who stands 6ft 3ins and weighs 16 stone.

“I love playing for St Mary’s and I got to play in the Irish Amateur [Club] team. If you look at the talent in that set-up, if you tell me those guys are not good enough to play professional rugby you’d be wrong. Look at [Lansdowne’s] Craig Ronaldson. He is a serious talent. He’ll be a great find for Connacht. Matt Healy [also Lansdowne] is a guy I’d have played a lot of AIL against and played a Leinster A game with him five years ago. He’s a serious player as well.”

Fanning has experienced this level before having featured for Eric Elwood’s Connacht three seasons ago before a dodgy appendix cost him the second portion of the campaign and, ultimately, his contract when the province’s budget spilled over. Offers of a stint in the Championship in England or further afield in France presented themselves but Fanning chose instead the lure of semi-pro rugby in Australia where his old St Mary’s coach Shaun McCarthy was stationed.

Tuggeranong Vikings in Canberra became home from home for two happy stints Down Under and he managed to fit in some sevens stuff too, including spells pottering about south-east Asia with the Sunnybank Dragons and Malaysia’s Cobras. When he returned home earlier this year it was back into the familiar embrace of St Mary’s and it was there that Joe Schmidt, who was still Leinster head coach at the time, spotted him and ushered him into the province’s A side.

Then new man, Matt O’Connor, offered a short-term training contract, one that was extended through to January after an impressive showing against Northampton at Donnybrook last month.

Proof positive then of the benefits to be gained for the game on these shores by having a man like Schmidt on the ground who knows his grass roots rugby and is determined to get out and about to see it.

“It does say something about Joe, but it was a bit of luck as well,” said Fanning, whose father Declan is a former Leinster captain. “The first time he saw me he was doing a pre-game lunch at Mary’s. The second time was Clontarf away and he happened to be doing the pre-game lunch there too. Joe knows all about club rugby and is spotted at all the underage games. He knows the club system inside out and that’s great for Irish rugby.”

Many other pieces had to fall into place for Fanning to get his chance: the unavailability of Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and Rob Kearney as well as the departure of Isa Nacewa, Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr last summer among them. The arrival of Lote Tuqiri on a brief contract this week has only reinforced the fact his game time will inevitably be squeezed — and yet he has clearly left an impression already.

“Darragh’s been very impressive,” said Kevin McLaughlin, who shares his allegiance to St Mary’s. “I’ve been hugely impressed by him so far, his aerial skills, his toughness on the ball. He’s taken to it like a duck to water.”

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