Connacht's Shane O’Leary ready for return to France

Shane O’Leary will complete a loop of a remarkable journey on Saturday night when he lines out at out-half for Connacht against Grenoble in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup.

The 23-year old is in his second season at the Sportsground and was thrown in at the deep end away to Ulster on Friday night for his first start in the Pro12 after Connacht’s three regular out-halves Jack Carty, AJ MacGinty, and Craig Ronaldson were all ruled out through injury.

Now O’Leary is poised to be again handed the No.10 this weekend as Connacht bid to take their best season ever one step closer to silverware.

But while the Saturday night clash, which kicks off at 9.05pm at Stades des Alpes, is a step into the unknown for most of the Connacht players, it will be a return to the mountain city for O’Leary where he spent a season.

That season with Grenoble in 2013-14, which saw him play five matches in the European Challenge Cup, is just part of a rather astonishing journey for a versatile back who turned 23 three weeks ago.

The journey began in Cork but with his dad Declan commuting to work in Limerick, the family moved there and then settled in Ballina in Co Tipperary, just across the Shannon from Killaloe, in Co Clare.

His initial rugby was with Ballina Killaloe RFC, who then amalgamated with Scariff RFC, before he moved to Young Munster.

The move by former Munster scrum-half and Young Munster coach Mike Prendergast to Grenoble to work with Bernard Jackman was a factor in O’Leary joining the French club’s academy for the 2013-2014.

But there was also a diversion to play U20 rugby with Canada in the Junior World Rugby Trophy in Chile. He qualified to play for them as his mother Delia is a Canadian citizen, and O’Leary finished as the top scorer in the tournament, although they went down in the final to Italy.

Pat Lam brought him to the Sportsground in the summer of 2014 and while he has had to bide his time, he’s now determined to make the most of his chance, having impressed in Friday night’s 18-10 loss against Ulster in Belfast.

“You never wish that anyone gets injured, because you can be in the same position yourself. But, if you’re handed an opportunity, you’ve got to grab it with two hands, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m doing all of my little extras, the boys are helping me out and I’m trying to make the most of it.”

O’Leary enjoyed his season in Grenoble and is looking forward to returning, where the Irish influence has extended beyond Jackman and Prendergast to former Ulster centre Chris Farrell, ex-Clontarf scrum-half James Hart, and former Irish U20 prop, Denis Coulson.

Former Connacht captain Andrew Farley moved from skippering the club to promotion to now be Grenoble’s team manager.

“It’s a really good club, a real community club and they really buy into it over there; all the supporters are crazy, they love rugby and in shops all over the place they’ve little Grenoble badges.”

O’Leary knows the scale of the challenge facing Connacht and with a home semi-final on offer against either Harlequins or London Irish, there is a huge amount at stake.

“The atmosphere over there in Stade des Alpes is always incredible. They have the bodhrans and their flags and everything. They are real loud, real vocal.

“Grenoble are a strong, physical team, and they have got that bit of flair as well. Their 10, Jonathan Wisniewski, is going really well at the moment as well. They are all things to look at through the week, and we will have our game plan going over, we’ll fully expect to win if we can implement our game plan,” added O’Leary.

Meanwhile Connacht confirmed yesterday that seven players — Fionn Carr, Jason Harris-Wright, AJ MacGinty, Aly Muldowney, George Naoupu, Api Pewhairangi, and Ian Porter will leave the club at the end of the season.

Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis.

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