It tells us much about Ross Molony that he’s jokingly known by one team-mate as the King of Lahinch – but it’s not without an element of truth. As much as he’s part of the fabric of Leinster, the same applies in the picturesque Co Clare town.
His grandfather Jack Molony, who won one cap in a win over Scotland in 1950 alongside Karl Mullen and Jackie Kyle, had a house in Lahinch, and so too do his parents, Kevin and Una.
“I can think of a few people who might have told you that,” says Molony, laughing, “I don’t necessarily know whether it’s the King of Lahinch. But from my grandparents and my parents, we have a big connection there and to the golf club. A load of aunties, uncles and cousins are also there.”
Indeed, Kevin is the incoming captain of Lahinch golf club, where Molony – like the rest of the family – spends much of his summers. Molony is the oldest of four siblings, with three younger sisters, Ciara (who is working in Australia), Suzie and Ria, who are both studying in UCD and working in Mulligans of Sandymount, where this interview also takes place.
Golf is a keen pursuit and an outlet, not just for Molony but for many in the Leinster squad. He also plays in Portmarnock and has his handicap down to 13., believes the story about Josh van der Flier taking up golf three years ago and already working his handicap down to seven.
“He loves it. He’s obsessed. He’s a serious golfer and very into it.”
And the best in Leinster? “I played with Jordan Larmour before and he’s gone around Dún Laoghaire in three over, which is pretty impressive. Ciaran Frawley is a good player too.”
It can’t always be rugby, rugby, rugby and Molony knows how to switch off. A Sandymount boy, he shares a house in Booterstown with scrumhalf Nick McCarthy and another ex-St Michael’s buddy, Simon Cusack, and finds cooking particularly therapeutic.
“It’s the best way of switching off, just to concentrate on anything else, whatever it is. It’s a simple one, but I do a good spaghetti bolognese before a game, which is in my routine.”
But, of course, rugby is his primary passion and is in the genes.
His grandfather, who hailed originally from Thurles, passed away in 2008, as did his grandmother Denise four years ago, but Jack Molony’s one cap while playing as a lock at UCD remains a huge source of family pride. One cousin, Liam, played in the last two games of the Ireland Under-20s Grand Slam off the bench, while another, Charlie, played in the Blackrock College team that lost the Leinster final to Gonzaga.
Molony started playing mini rugby in Lansdowne, where his dad coached and, indeed, then took over his son’s mini team. Going to St Michael’s upped the ante, and Molony was part of the 2012 team that beat Clongowes in the final and the 2013 team beaten by Blackrock.
McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Cian Kelleher and Josh Murphy were all school team-mates, and again in the Under-20s, when Molony played every game in the 2014 Six Nations and Under-20 World Championship in New Zealand.
Ireland reached the third-place play-off, losing 45-23 to a Baby Blacks’ side featuring Richie Mo’unga, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie, in Eden Park. “Yeah, we went down all guns blazing. It was very exciting, and pretty cool too.”
Molony attributes the conveyor belt both to coaching – be it Andy Skehan or Emmet MacMahon – and trailblazing former players such as Noel Reid, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Rory O’Loughlin.
“The Leinster academy are also brilliant at scouting talent and then keeping those players in the game.”
A landmark day was the school principal Tim Kelleher inviting him and Billy Dardis to an interview with Girvan Dempsey, then the Leinster academy manager, and his ensuing offer to join the academy. It meant switching his degree choice from engineering to commerce so as to accommodate rugby.
Another was his Leinster debut against Zebre at the RDS in February 2015, as a 20-year-old.
“I was 24th man that day and Matt O’Connor, who I got on well with, came up to me and said: ‘Ben Marshall just rolled his ankle in the warm-up. You better know your shit.’ In a kind of joking, playful manner I suppose,” he says, laughing at the memory. “I’ve seen a few pictures and I’d say I was half the size I am now.”
His family had been at home but made it to the RDS for the second-half.
Maybe I am a late developer, but I also consciously decided I have to put weight on, because there are big players out there, and a lot of teams are winning with that enforcer secondrow
The following season, his third in the academy, Molony played the first seven matches of a World Cup season and went on to make 21 appearances, including 13 from the start, game time which fast-tracked his development.
Another landmark was being offered his first senior contract.
“That’s when I started working with my agent, Niall Woods, who has been brilliant throughout my whole career. Getting the academy is one thing, but then being brought into the Leinster senior squad is another massive step, especially the numbers they bring into the academy every year.”
Save for the pandemic-interrupted campaign of 2020-21, Molony has played a minimum of 18 games in each of the last eight seasons. He played in three of the pool games in Leinster’s Champions Cup 2017-18 triumph, when he was 24th man for the final in Bilbao, and he was one of the mainstays of the four Pro14 titles in a row. The interpros stand out, notably Christmas derbies in Thomond Park.
“I have some friends from Limerick and Cork who like to get stuck into me around them, so that’s always good fun if we come out on top.”
His first call-up to an Irish squad was for the summer series against Japan and the USA in 2021. Of the 11 uncapped players in that squad, only Molony, Peter Dooley and Tom Daly didn’t make their Test debuts. But whatever disappointment he felt, it was superseded by the motivation it gave him, “and a bit of a lift when I needed it in my career.”
The knowledge he gained of the standards required shone through last season, Molony’s most prolific thus far, with 23 appearances and over 1,500 minutes, including eight successive starts in the Champions Cup, including the final.
We saw much more of Molony’s carrying and ball skills as a first receiver, even if Leinster came up short in both the Champions Cup and URC.
“We’re incredibly motivated to make this season different from last, and on a personal level I want to keep pushing and keep getting into these teams and see what happens from that.”
James Ryan and Ryan Baird, also from Moloney’s alma mater, are both in the Irish team, but not every player’s development and career are linear. Physically and athletically, the 28-year-old Molony is more of a late developer and his increased bulk of 116kg is a product of the work he began with a home-made gym during lockdown.
“Maybe I am a late developer, but I also consciously decided I have to put weight on, because there are big players out there, and a lot of teams are winning with that enforcer secondrow.”
He’s also a voracious student of lineouts, which dates back to his schools days.
“I just enjoy watching lineouts and the thought process that goes into a working week. It’s hugely important. Teams are putting a massive amount of time and energy into the lineout, so if I could make that a point of difference for myself, I’m putting myself there to be selected.”
Molony has again been one of the mainstays in helping Leinster to an unbeaten season so far. He describes last week’s game against the Stormers as “a proper test for that [Leinster] group”. One memory stands out. After returning to the Leinster dressing-room after the Captain’s Run at the RDS, seeing the strong Stormers’ selection prompted a bring-it-on collective response.
“Everyone was nervous, no doubt, but it was an excited nervousness. It was like ‘we have a proper game on our hands here’.”
And at 17-0 down? “There was just a calmness within the group.”
Only five players – Cian Healy, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Johnny Sexton and Dave Kearney – in the current Leinster squad have more than Molony’s 158 appearances. One team-mate reckons Molony might well be the single most underrated player in Irish rugby, and he also brings huge value off the pitch as a leadership figure.
“It’s important to enjoy each other’s company because when we’re playing together that trust and camaraderie will win you games. We take in so many young players in Leinster that you have to welcome them into the group and make sure that they bring a standard can drive the group. Whenever we get the chance, it’s important to spend company and socialise within the group.”
Molony has had options to move but as he explains: “I love playing for Leinster. For most of the lads, it’s been their childhood team, similar to myself. I have had options to go elsewhere, but as long as I’m playing well and being picked in Leinster it’s where I ultimately want to be.
Ireland’s Grand Slam coronation is a pointer towards what’s on the line for Leinster in this season’s run-in, and after being called up to the squad that week, Molony had a taste of it too.
“If I’m not motivated to play for Ireland, I don’t play well,” he reasons.
Molony missed the epic quarter-final win over Ulster, and the bulk of the 2017-18 run-in due to a disc bulge in his back – a rare physical setback for such a, touch wood, durable player. But he knows Ulster will bring down plenty more of the same again.
“I think they went after us around the ruck. They probably felt that if they could get a bit of momentum they could turn the crowd and get the Ulster fans cheering. They tried to get us out of our flow and make us uncomfortable, which they did that day. We did incredibly well to win that game, but I think that’s the template they might use this weekend.”
It’s a relevant comparison in other ways too.
“It’s a sell-out. It’s a knock-out game in Europe. It’s a Last 16 tie. It’s the first of the knockout games in this competition and then on top of all that, it’s an interpro game, which naturally has an extra edge anyway. It’s going to be huge. It’s going to be unbelievably exciting. And I can’t wait.”