From a Munster Schools Senior Cup winning back row to a Waikato Premier A front row, Jack Dineen admits his life in rugby has taken the road less travelled.
It is a pathway that has taken the 22-year-old from Limerick to New Zealand in the hope it will one day take him back into the professional game after an injury-hit final season in the Connacht Academy.
After surgery on both shoulders in the spring and a posterior cruciate ligament knee injury in his second game since arriving on the North Island, Dineen will this weekend continue on the comeback trail with Hamilton Old Boys as the storied Waikato club bids for a first Premier A title in 11 years.
With two senior Connacht appearances on his resumé from 2013-14, he left Galway for New Zealand at the end of April in search of post- operative game time, with the aim of earning a place on a provincial ITM Cup team that could showcase his talents for prospective clubs back in Europe. Yet Dineen’s fitness misfortunes followed him to Hamilton.
Further complicating his situation was the fact Connacht had asked him to consider switching from hooker to loosehead prop. Having made the adjustment from back row to hooker, thrown in at the deep end in the midst of an injury crisis for a senior debut off the bench against his home province.
“After the 2013-14 U20 interpros, Nigel Carolan (then the Academy manager) and (then Academy coach) Jimmy Duffy asked me to switch to hooker. Fast forward four or five months and in the April I made my first senior cap against Munster.
"I’d only had a handful of junior club games at hooker, trying to learn the trade but there was a huge amount of injuries. I was working in the Clan Terrace bar at the games, trying to make a bit of money and when the team was named Pat Lam joked he’d had to call on the bar staff to play for him. It felt ridiculous but whatever way it happened, it happened.”
Dineen’s family are steeped in Limerick and Munster rugby with grandfather Len a much-loved radio commentator and father Len Jr and uncle Gareth both having represented the province at various levels. Jack found himself scrumming down opposite Damian Varley with Paul O’Connell pushing behind from the second row.
“It was just a complete blur. It was a full house in the Sportsground and the atmosphere was second to none. I was bricking myself! I’d only played a handful of games but I got a second cap the following week at Ospreys in Liberty Stadium before they brought in more players and I was back down in the academy training.”
See-sawing between the academy and senior training as he continued to learn his new position, Dineen spent another three years in the Connacht academy but his career reached a critical juncture at the start of this year when the province asked him to switch again, this time to loosehead. He duly made the switch but by February, he was advised he needed surgery to resolve ongoing shoulder issues.
“I was at a crossroads. I needed to play games to try and secure a contract for next season because I was new to the position but if I did hang on and play those games I wouldn’t be playing at 100%. That was the dilemma and I decided to go ahead and get the shoulder sorted and try and get back soon as I could.
“Then I found out I wasn’t being retained by Connacht. They said I needed to play more games, they hadn’t seen me play at loosehead enough and obviously having to get the surgery didn’t help that matter. But even if they had kept me on I still needed game time in the new position and the only place you get that in the Northern Hemisphere off-season is down south.
"New Zealand was the logical, most straightforward route for me. When I found out I wasn’t being kept on I said ‘right, I have my degree, there’s nothing to hold me back, so I decided to come down.”
Connacht manager Tim Allnutt put in a good word for Dineen with Hamilton Old Boys head coach Mark McConnell, the former Connacht captain and lock who had been brought over to Galway in the 1990s by former head coach Warren Gatland.
His rehab complete, Dineen played his first game in New Zealand in early May, answering McConnell’s call for a front row replacement and finding himself required at hooker.
“When you’re in that situation you believe the coaches know best and so I went with the move. Yet since I’ve come down here I’ve only played hooker because that’s where they’ve needed me, but I’m going forward as a hooker and loosehead. I’ve been throwing fine down here and scrummaging at loosehead in training.
“It went well, we got a win and I started the following week. That was great but 25 minutes in I tore my right PCL in my knee, so that wasn’t much fun, coming down to the other side of the world to play rugby and that happens.”
Having to start all over again, Dineen got his first few minutes back on the rugby field six weeks later on the back pitch at Stadium Waikato, home of Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs.
“It was a good feeling just getting back on the pitch, I only came on for the last five minutes or so and I’ve come off the bench a couple of times since and the knee has held up okay. So I’m just trying to fight my way into the starting shirt by the time the play-off finals come round.
“Originally the plan coming down was to get in with an ITM Cup outfit, Waikato or Bay of Plenty or someone. Being out for the last while hasn’t helped that and I suppose my chances are fairly dwindling but the way I see it, if I get back out on the pitch, there’s potentially a few games left in the Waikato Premier A competition to put my hand up. Whether it’s to an ITM team or a Heartland Championship team, I’d like to stay down until October until those seasons finish.
“The end goal is still to go out and play professional rugby, I’m just having to take the road less travelled at the moment.
“It can work. You look at players like Steve Crosbie and Gav Thornbury and they’ve done it this way and are in Connacht now. And then there’s guys like Oli Jager, who came straight down from (Blackrock) school and look at him now (in the Canterbury squad), playing (for the Provincial Barbarians) against the Lions, it’s insane but it’s working for him and who’s to say it can’t work for somebody else.”
Dineen is determined to find his way back into the professional game and the commerce and marketing graduate from NUIG training and working out either side of a day job on the production line at a Hamilton engineering company.
“It’s only given more drive to get back into a professional rugby environment. I trained and played for four years as a professional in the Connacht academy and now I’m outside of it, it’s a big shock to the system not having the structure and regime you get so used to.
“I miss it, so coming down here has given me the drive to get back in. So whatever way the next few weeks will work out I’m staying as optimistic as I can. It’s been a bit of an eye-opener... I’m not ready for the real world yet!
“So I want to give this a shot and I’m going to do it all guns blazing.”
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