UST three years since taking up the code, Ronan Michael became the first Irish-born player in rugby league’s Super League in over a decade when he lined out for Huddersfield Giants against Wigan Warriors earlier this month.
Michael came off the bench in the 54th minute of a 19-6 loss to the eventual table-toppers but for the 20-year-old Balbriggan man, it was a “class
moment” to end a weird 2020.
In the normal run of things, he should have been in Australia on loan with the Canberra Raiders.
Instead, he spent the summer months cleaning windows, power-washing driveways, and dredging gutters in between a rare foray hurling with hometown club O’Dwyer’s.
Indeed, serendipity has been a byword for his steep rise. Three years ago, Michael was unaware rugby league was even played in Ireland. But when he was passed over for trials with Leinster’s metro and north east U16 union set-ups, he sought a transfer from Balbriggan RFC to Clontarf which he felt would aid his development.
It ended up taking him in a whole new direction.
“I was gutted to miss out on those trials but it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told the.
“It made me more motivated to prove people wrong. I wanted to move to Clontarf but the Leinster Branch had clauses that if you want to move underage you have to move school, move house or take a year out. I wasn’t moving school or house so the year out was the only option.”
O’Dwyer’s filled the sporting void for a while but he craved an oval ball in his hands. His mother sensed it and rang around; after some dead ends with tag rugby and sevens, she found some league try-outs which he rocked up to with a few mates.
“We had seen the NRL but genuinely had no idea it was played here, that it was just an Australian sport. We really didn’t have a clue. We turn up and ask what’s the club called? ‘Nah, nah, this is the Irish U17s!’ We were star-struck; we were almost playing for our country and we haven’t even started. It was just a right place, right time moment!”
A few weeks later, he was playing against Wales and he got another four games under his belt before Huddersfield got wind of his ability.
Along with three other Balbriggan lads, an invitation came for trials soon after his Leaving Cert mocks in 2018.
He was the only one to reach the next phase but there was no red carpet laid out — he paid for his own travel across to Huddersfield to have his shot at
“It was a risk for them! I had only played eight games of league by that stage. Taking in someone so new to it all, I could easily have ruined the sessions so I owe them so much. I was up against guys who had been playing, living and breathing league since they could walk. After the trial, I got a one-year academy deal with the U19s, played week-in, week-out and then worked a regular job all the way through.
“You don’t earn much on these contracts and you are away from home but I did enough to get that first team deal [in 2019]. It was about creating my own opportunities; I knew what I wanted.”
The next opportunity was down under with Canberra calling for an overseas loan deal and some much-needed game time to smooth some of the raw edges.
He went over in January with a view to returning in October but the programme quickly changed.
“Coronavirus had its own plans and I came back mid-March when things got really bad. The Super League was cancelled, the NRL was cancelled.
“No one really knew what the world would look like or when sport would be back. The staff there thought it would be better if I came back because no one knew.
“Hindsight is a killer but we didn’t know things would get back to normal quicker than expected [in Australia].”
HE return left Michael in limbo.
He was still contracted with the Giants but had no formal return date so he got back to work but there was only one end-goal.
“Window-cleaning, power-washing and guttering, anything really. Although I knew I was lucky to pick up a job in a pandemic when a lot of people couldn’t get one, the aim was to get back playing rugby.”
In addition to hurling, he did get a season in with the Ashbourne’s Longhorns, en route to a fourth successive All-Ireland title but he was itching to get back to England at the first possible chance.
“I didn’t expect to even be in Huddersfield this year and definitely didn’t expect to make my debut [at the start of 2020] but when I did arrive back, I knew getting a game was my goal for this season. All my academy team-mates came back a month earlier and some were getting debuts younger than me.
“This was a box I had to tick because I was already had a big gap to catch up but them playing also made things more real and a belief I can do this.”
The debut duly arrived, making a solid impact in what proved the Giants final outing of the season.
He became the first Irish-born player to feature in the competition since Brian Carney in 2009
“I don’t remember too much because I was that excited, a surreal feeling,” Michael reflected.
“You go into that fight or flight mode. You train for those moments when you are not thinking that much and are going on instinct, catching the ball and carrying it. It was a class moment and really enjoyed it.”
With a first-team contract, he says he is now being comparatively “treated like a king!” but his work ethic means he has little intention of resting on his laurels.
“Sport is ruthless so if you aren’t driven, you will fall away. The goal now is to play as many Super League games as I can, make myself a regular member of the first team.
“I also have big ambitions for the 2021 World Cup. I’ve played five games already for the Irish team but I would love to play World Cup level. That’s one of the biggest goals, to get a shot at the best teams in the world.
“I loved my debut and getting loads of messages but now it is on to the next thing. How can I be a better player and play a lot more next season? If you don’t think about improving every day, then that’s it.”