Rugby pros Fergus McFadden and Sean Cronin swot up for a life beyond the pitch
McFadden and Cronin left university when their rugby careers took off, but both were worried about life after sport – which is why they are back studying part-time
Sean Cronin and Fergus McFadden at Griffith College. Photograph: Conor McCabe
Cronin and McFadden in training with the Irish rugby squad. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Athletes retire early. Just as most people are making strides in their career – around their mid-30s – professional sports players are winding down. It’s a dilemma of which Leinster and Ireland rugby players Fergus McFadden and Sean Cronin are acutely aware.
After some academic hurdles, the pair are now studying part-time for a bachelor of business studies degree at Griffith College Dublin. “I want to equip myself with something to fall back on post-rugby,” says McFadden.
Juggling study and sport has been something the pair have had to do right through school. McFadden went to Clongowes Wood College in Co Kildare, one of the top fee-paying schools in the country. Cronin went to Ardscoil Rís, a non-fee paying school in Limerick.
This background puts Cronin in a minority in the Leinster squad. Excluding those educated outside of Ireland, 27 out of its 32 players come from just a handful of fee- paying schools, including Blackrock College, St Mary’s, Clongowes, Castleknock College, Gonzaga, Newbridge College and Belvedere College.
Rejecting suggestions of elitism in the club, McFadden says: “About 80 or 90 per cent of players in the Munster Academy or Leinster Academy are spotted in the Senior Cup. In Munster, a lot more teams are from non-fee paying schools. It just happens that rugby is their main game. In Leinster, there are a lot more fee-paying schools in the Senior Cup.”
Talent stood out
While McFadden and Cronin hail from two different rugby traditions, both also played and excelled at GAA and soccer. Their talent stood out, and was later nurtured and developed by, respectively, the Leinster Academy and Munster Academy.
When he left school, Cronin began studying for a bachelor degree in business at University of Limerick (UL). The same year he started with the Munster Academy. “I’d come in early for training, then go to college, and then go to another training session in the afternoon. There was also, on occasion, some training with the senior squad. UL were really helpful and facilitated me as best they could.”
While at UL, Cronin joined the Connacht rugby squad. In his third year of college, it became impossible for him to train in Galway and keep up with college work. He dropped out. “It wasn’t easy, having done two years of a degree and then having to leave, but you don’t do all this training to pass up an opportunity like that,” he says.
McFadden, who started studying economics and geography as part of a bachelor of arts degree at University College Dublin in 2005, faced a similar conflict. “I was on a scholarship, playing with the UCD under-20s rugby team in return for free accommodation. It was hard to fit in training and college. I was missing a lot of lectures. UCD were helpful, but, as my rugby career progressed, I found myself touring with Leinster during the summer. It became awkward. Over time, I saw that it was not going to work if I was continually deferring and looking for extensions.”
McFadden and Cronin left university with reluctance, with the same looming worry of all professional athletes: what about a life after sport?
Cronin signed up for the part-time business course at Griffith College, where classes are held in the evening. McFadden spoke to his friend and team-mate and realised that it was a viable option for him as well.
“I could study at night and switch over my credits from UCD,” says McFadden. “It made sense. Being in Griffith has really worked for me, as it’s meant I can manage my time and get into college in the evening after training and manage the amount of modules I can do each semester.”
“We both want to get it done,” says Cronin. “It can be tough to come in at night when you’re wrecked after a day’s training, but most of the people in my class are also coming in from work. They’re exhausted too, but they have to get on with it: We’re all in the same boat.”
Cronin feels that he is very lucky and privileged to work as a professional sports player. “I have an opportunity now to further my education. I had started it, and I want to finish it. Looking down the line, rugby is not going to last forever, so I want to get my degree before I finish and maybe even start something else. I don’t know whether that will be business, or perhaps health and performance, or sports management.”
Leinster captain Jamie Heaslip, who is involved in a few business ventures, has encouraged his team-mates to develop themselves outside sport. The Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association pays particular attention to life beyond retirement – which typically happens around the age of 33. The organisation runs a mentoring programme that connects players with professionals in an area that interests them.
While some players have shadowed people in the business world, McFadden spoke to an Aer Arann pilot about getting a pilot’s licence. “We get an insight into what life will be like outside the sporting world. I’d consider getting my private pilot’s license first, but if I like it enough, I could look into getting a commercial pilot’s license.”
Ultimately, McFadden and Cronin, like many other players, have been torn between sport and academia. Their choice: to enjoy every moment of their current careers while keeping one eye on the future.
“Rugby took preference, and it takes preference now,” says McFadden. “Don’t get me wrong: I want my degree and I want to do well. But a rugby career spans – if you’re lucky – 10 or 12 years. I can’t be too distracted. I have to make the best of this time now.”
BALANCING BOOKS: THE ELITE ATHLETES STUDYING IN IRELAND’S COLLEGES
There are many athletes who can empathise with McFadden and Cronin’s difficulty in balancing sport and study. In an increasingly competitive environment, higher education institutions are keen to attract top-level sporting talent.
All seven universities have sports scholarships. Several of them, along with some institutes of technology, have heavily invested in improved sports facilities in recent years.
Dublin City University
With its sports development programmes, elite athlete development programmes, and sports academy, DCU has become something of a “feeder college” to several sports at the highest level, including GAA.
Six members of the Dublin ladies senior football team are DCU students, as are three of the men’s team. At least another 13 DCU students represented their county in senior-level GAA games.
In athletics, Paul Robinson represents Ireland in the 1,500 metres, while in rugby, first-year DCU law student and Leinster player Martin Moore claimed his first senior cap for Ireland last February.
Trinity College Dublin
Although slightly less noted for sporting prowess, TCD has 11 sports represented in the 2014-2015 sports scholarship programme. Kayaker Tom Brennan has achieved a qualification place for Ireland in next year’s inaugural European Olympic Games, while GAA recipients include Dublin football player Sarah McCaffery and Fermanagh football captain Tiernan Daly.
University College Dublin
Through its Ad Astra elite athlete scholarship and its sport scholarship programme, UCD targets students who want to achieve at the highest sporting level while also attaining a degree.
More than 850 students have been awarded scholarships to date. The current crop includes: Paralympian swimming gold medallist Darragh McDonald, who is studying commerce; Leinster rugby player Luke McGrath, who is studying business and law; and Irish senior international soccer player Ciara Grant, who is studying medicine.
It awards scholarships in golf, GAA, rugby, soccer and snooker. Up-and-coming golfer Gary Hurley – runner-up at this year’s European Individual Amateur Championships – is among the recipients. Senior intercounty Gaelic football players include Dublin’s Eric Lowndes, Meath’s Eamon Wallace, and Dublin’s Ciara Trant and Margaret Mohan.
Cork Institute of Technology
It has developed some of the best campus sporting facilities in Ireland, and awards bursaries to promising athletes. Current students include Cork senior footballers Cathal Vaughan and David Hanrahan, and Wexford senior camogie players Linda and Lisa Bolger.