Rodney Ah You wants to do Connacht proud after cracking the Irish set-up
The ferocious prop says their’s a belief among his team-mates that Saracens can be turned over
Connacht’s Rodney Ah You: “I just want to go into camp and show what I have got and to represent Connacht really well.”
The summons comes completely out of the blue. Another Tuesday afternoon training session in the Sportsground ends and Rodney Ah You is asked to drop into the manager’s office. Tim Warnock is inside, beaming at him. Congratulations, he tells the big New Zealander. You’ve made the Irish squad.
Two days later, after another workout on a January afternoon with the first hint of spring, Ah You is still grinning helplessly. “My initial reaction was pure shock,” he says. “You know: it can’t be true. It can’t be true. But yeah, it has slowly been sinking in for the past few hours.”
While the inclusion of Robbie Henshaw, easily the most talked about three-quarters player since the first flush of Jonathan Bell and growing with every game, was a banker for Connacht, the elevation of Ah You to the cusp of international game was a less obvious choice by Joe Schmidt.
Ah You recalls his first season in Galway with mixed feelings: along with his wife Bella, he took quite a while to convince himself that he wanted to leave Christchurch at all. Even though his initial experience of Ireland as part of the baby Blacks squad that won the 2007 World Cup in Belfast was memorable, it was still a small island that seemed unfathomably far away from his family and what he knew. And when he came, he found the way of life overwhelmingly strange and the streets constantly damp. And the rugby life was different.
Eric Elwood recruited him and he enjoyed the straight-talking enthusiasm of the coach who, he quickly learned, was something of a walking god in this part of the world. But the life was a different thing.
“Being in a professional environment full time . . . I was taking it for granted. It took a while. The funny thing is that when we went back to Christchurch last time, we were saying: ‘Let’s go home now’. Both our kids were born in Galway and we have Irish friends outside of rugby and it feels like home to us now.”
Even sitting down in the Connacht offices, wearing training shorts and a sweatshirt, Ah You is a ferociously strong looking customer and unexpectedly soft-spoken. He apologises several times, claiming that he is no good at interviews but he is clearly still scrambling a little to sift through the details of what must be the busiest week of his professional life.
The thought of the Ireland camp is a thrill but his immediate concentration and loyalties are firmly with Connacht and the matter of their closing Heineken Cup pool game against Saracens, which takes place in the extreme northern fringe of London at lunchtime today. The scenario is classically Connacht: up against the odds but ferociously alive and requiring a touch of divine inspiration to match the ferocious honesty which can, occasionally, enable them to eclipse rugby teams with lofty ambitions.
“Well, there is a big belief that we can turn Saracens over. When they came here we fell just short. It comes down to the team . . . we can’t play as individuals on Saturday or else we will fall apart. The Amlin Cup is something to shoot for too but when we go out there we will be playing for the championship.”
Ah You has played every game for Connacht this season. His consistency is the best tribute to the application with which he began to reward Lam last season. It wasn’t that difficult for him to tap into.
Ah You’s father boxed golden gloves and so the son was naturally drawn to fighting, boxing at underage grades around Christchurch until the age of 16. He had played one game of rugby in his life until that point but living in New Zealand, the sport was everywhere. It wasn’t long before the coaches took note of the ironing board shoulders, the powerful thighs and low centre of gravity and, most of all, the footwork which he acquired from his years of moving his sizeable frame around a boxing ring. “They put me at number eight for the first season but after that I was in and around the frontrow,” he says.
So Ah You went from novice to New Zealand under-20 in the space of four years. His father worked with him on his rugby as assiduously as he had when he boxed and it helped. He played frontrow in the World Cup Baby Blacks team along with Ben Afeaki, who went on to win a senior cap with New Zealand and Ash Dixon. The team also contained future All Blacks like Zac Guildford and Ryan Crotty. So making the grade at senior level was always on a vague, future wish list for Ah You.
“Every kid wants to be an All Black. It was the ultimate dream, yeah, of course. When I came here first it was to get experience and work on scrums and set-pieces and then go back and try and crack on. He was serious about it, changing clubs just so he could work with Dave Hewitt, the coach he credits with shaping him as a professional and persuading him that he had the versatility to play both tight and loosehead positions.
When the invitation came to sign for Connacht, the idea was to get some quality first-team practice in and then came the first bout of disillusionment with the professional game. He just wasn’t happy. “I wasn’t really enjoying it. I didn’t really know how to play this slower sort of style of rugby. I kept grinding away but I don’t think I made a good first impression . . . turning up overweight and turning up a bit late as well. So the second year got a bit better and Pat and I had a talk just when he was coming in and he refocused me and I just realised I needed to step it up.”
His rate of improvement has been recognised by this call-up from Schmidt. He laughs when he says it took him a while to actually get to speak to the Irish coach. “Not prior to hearing the news. Cause the phone was a bit out of action. So had to slip the SIM card back in the phone and yeah, I was just talking to him there after training. I phoned my mum and dad and they were over the moon. You know, to be here and crack the Irish set-up . . . they are really proud.”
Ah You understands that some rugby people have reservations about the three-year residency rule and the notion of overseas players playing for the Irish side. “Yeah, I do understand that some people wouldn’t like the idea of the three-year rule and want to see the local boy who was born and bred and raised through the system. But I don’t really know what to say about it . . . I have done my time here and was picked and am delighted.”
Anyone who watches Connacht rugby regularly knows that the players give well beyond the required application of a professional athlete. Sometimes they leave the field half dead. Ask Ah You about playing the Sportsground and he relaxes for the first time, his face lighting up as he tried to express what it is that makes the wintry field near the graveyard such a brilliant place to call home.
“I reckon . . . yeah. It is not a fancy stadium and all that but I reckon it must be the best crowd environment to play in. When they are behind you and get that chant going, it always gives the boys a boost. I have never seen the passion that they have anywhere. There is that sense that we do need to fight that bit extra just to compete.
“The Toulouse game . . . we finally got over the hill and there was the biggest sense of relief. It wasn’t that we reached our full potential but it clicked and we saw what we could do. I do think the scoreboard is not reflecting the way we’re performing.
“We are stepping up in the Heineken and yeah, we should be keeping that on in the Rabo but it is hard to explain. But we are putting the same effort in and the end result is not reflecting that.”
Today in London brings more of that: hoping the result comes right. Most of the Connacht lads have a rest week ahead but Ah You has his bags packed for Carton House.
“I’ve heard good things about that place,” he smiles. In the autumn, he watched Samoa, his parental homeland, playing Ireland and rooted for the old country. He had no inkling then that he would be walking into the Irish camp a few months later and admits that he doesn’t really know any of the Irish lads.
“I have played against them but nah, I don’t know them. I just want to go into camp and show what I have got and to represent Connacht really well.”