Cian Prendergast was arguably the unluckiest Irish player to miss out on the World Cup. Actually, there isn’t much arguing about it. Had Andy Farrell opted for a 19-14 split instead of 18-15, as others did, Prendergast would have made the cut.
The Irish coaches had begun their investment in Prendergast at the end of his breakthrough 2021-22 season with Connacht. Brought to New Zealand, he played in both Maori games, was part of the Emerging Ireland squad in South Africa, made his Test debut against Fiji, and was in the Six Nations and World Cup squads, playing in the warm-up games against Italy and the full 80 against England at number eight.
However, the day before Ireland played Samoa in Bayonne, Farrell approached Prendergast at the Captain’s Run in the Parc Jean Dauger with the bad news.
“There were a lot of unlucky people to miss out on the World Cup,” says Prendergast, readily listing off Tom Stewart, Calvin Nash, Gavin Coombes, Ciaran Frawley and others at Connacht branch’s offices at the Sportsground.
“It’s just the way it fell. The backrow is really deep, and in the centre we had some quality players like Stuart McCloskey, who didn’t play much but against Scotland was super. You can’t really begrudge anyone getting picked.”
Even so, the disappointment cut deep.
“From 2019 I had targeted maybe making that World Cup. It took me a while to get over it. I had to have some conversations with my parents and some difficult conversations with Pete [Wilkins, Connacht head coach], around: ‘What do I do going forward?’
“Like most players know, when you’re not picked for teams, it’s a lonely place, especially seeing how well the lads did. I was still absolutely gutted for them. I know how those lads worked and they deserved more than what happened. After New Zealand, they were feeling way worse than I had.”
Prendergast is not targeting four years from now, instead focusing on shorter-term goals and seeing what happens from there. No less than Connacht, Farrell and co value his determined carrying, especially beyond contact, his defensive work, threat at the breakdown, lineout skills and his ability to produce big moments and play flanker or number eight.
Discipline has been a flaw, notably a willingness to overchase lost causes. He’s spoken with Wilkins and Farrell about this.
“Andy Farrell always says: ‘Don’t be desperate. Be accurate.’ I’ve tried to implement that in my game and it’s probably the biggest growth that I need.
“It’s not about being in cruise control, but you don’t have to force things. The game will come to you. Moments will come to you. You don’t have to try and have a big moment the whole time. You’ve got to be patient.
Missing the World Cup is not the first setback in Prendergast’s fledgling career.
Back in April 2020, the then Leinster academy manager Noel McNamara had the unpleasant duty of informing Prendergast he wouldn’t be offered a place there. For about 36 hours Prendergast’s dreams of becoming a professional rugby player appeared over, whereupon Eric Elwood rang offering a place in the Connacht academy.
“It was the craziest 36 hours but it’s worked out brilliantly.”
His upwardly mobile younger brother Sam has gone straight into the Leinster set-up and Saturday’s match could have featured the added subplot of them facing each other.
While that will have to wait with Sam not in the Leinster squad, the elder sibling maintained that any such meeting would be a proud day for the family, but any contest would first be about Connacht v Leinster.
Almost exactly three years apart, they’ve never played against or alongside each other, save for an underage Gaelic football match with their local club, Suncroft, circa 2015/2016. “That’s the extent of our playing career together.”
The brothers are two quite different rugby players.
“I think growing up we’ve always been different. Whenever we played soccer I was always playing centre back or defensive ‘mid’, kicking the legs off lads, whereas Sam was always the creative one, playing up the field. He still has a bit of nastiness about him, don’t get me wrong, but he was more talented with the ball growing up than I would have been.
“I think it comes quite naturally to him. He’s quite a composed person. He’s not fazed by much. We’re very similar and very different in ways, and built differently, different frames.”
Gaelic football was Prendergast’s first sport. “It was huge on my mother’s side particularly, the Éire Óg club in Carlow,” he says of his mum Ciara (née Ware), and he played until 16, when rugby started becoming serious.
His dad Mark hails from Westmeath and, save for one season in his first year at Newbridge College, there’s no rugby in the family tree. But the school facilitated their sporty nature. Sister Lara has competed for Ireland in athletics and has played representative Gaelic football and hockey, and now plays for Three Rock Rovers.
Mark will take Sarah to her game this morning, before they all boot it down to Galway for tonight’s match, including Prendergast’s girlfriend Roisin, with whom he went to school.
“Initially I fancied myself as an outhalf or centre,” Prendergast admits wryly when recalling how he dreamt of becoming a pro rugby player. “I was probably a bit delusional.”
Not picked on the Junior Cup team, he switched position into the secondrow, before moving into the backrow and assuming the captaincy in his final year when the side lost the quarter-final against Belvedere and David Hawkshaw for a second time.
“Because of Gaelic football, the lineout came naturally to me, and I had a bit of a growth spurt as well. I grew from about 5ft 9in to 6ft 2in when I was in fourth year.”
Making the Leinster schools team led to Ireland Schools and Ireland Under-20s. Against England at Franklin’s Gardens in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit, he made an eye-catching 20-minute cameo in a 39-21 win.
Afterwards, the forwards coach Colm Tucker, the scrum and contact coach at Connacht, asked Prendergast about his post-college plans.
“He must have known something I didn’t regarding Leinster and he asked me would I be willing to move to Galway.” Prendergast said he would, not really thinking anything would come of it. “Fast forward another six weeks and that’s what unfolded.”
He was fast-tracked into the senior squad after a year, since signing on again until 2025, but readily admits he was lucky, with injuries and covid cases affording him 10 appearances in his academy year. That included a 50-minute stint off the bench in Connacht’s battling 26-22 Champions Cup defeat against Racing 92 in La Défense Arena.
He started 20 games in 2021-22, becoming a firm favourite with Andy Friend and fans alike. When the Connacht squad landed in Dublin Airport last Monday, they bumped into Friend and his wife Kerri, who were on their homeward journey to Australia. “I hadn’t seen them since the Connacht awards last May,” said Prendergast.
Friend loved Prendergast’s desire and determination, epitomised by his willingness to do extras.
“That’s something Friendy drilled into you, take control of your own destiny. Him, Collie, Pete [Wilkins], Fards [Scott Fardy], Sexto [Mark Sexton], Mul [John Muldoon], they’re all big facilitators in helping lads get better. Planning everything, making sure that you’re organised, and it’s not just mindless work, it’s something that I really took from Friendy.”
Prendergast attributes his drive, discipline and maturity, which you can sense even in a half-hour in his company, to his parents, both of whom served in the army.
“I know my mum gave up a pretty promising career in the army to look after us when we started secondary school. From speaking to people she worked with, everyone was quite shocked that she retired because of how good a leader she was in the army.
“Then seeing what my dad achieved in the army and the way he works with his business now. That was a shock to people as well, but he saw himself going on a different career path. It’s Prendergast Leadership, so he’s in business and leadership development now. Him and my mum work on that now at home.”
Prendergast’s commitment to the cause goes beyond a debt of gratitude, for he’s long since bought into being a Connachtman.
“One of the best things that’s ever happened to me is moving to this city. Good people, good food, good pubs, good coffee shops.”
Prendergast lives about 20 minutes outside the city in Oranmore, sharing with Jarad Butler in an estate where Bundee Aki and former housemate Denis Buckley also live.
“I love how much it means to people here. Every coach, every member of staff up here to downstairs, to Deirdre who works for Rugby Players Ireland, everyone cares about you and tries to push you in the direction you want to go.
“Then there’s the wider Connacht fans. I don’t think you’re going to get a greater group of people. They care so much and sometimes you wish they were harder on you, because sometimes when you don’t get a result they’re a little bit too nice. I wish they were a little bit harsher, but that’s probably a good complaint to have.
“But I just think there’s something special about the Clan Stand and the people here, and hopefully the new development will take it to another level.
“I don’t think any stadium in professional rugby has the kind of connection we have. After a big win there’s nothing quite like walking out the dog track and in past the railings into the changing room. The amount of kids and parents and general fans who are just so supportive is amazing.
“I think that’s so special about this place. Winning means so much to the people.”
Prendergast attributes this steadfast support to being starved of success before the 2016 Pro12 triumph, and the support will rise another level on Saturday in advance of their first Champions Cup game against Bordeaux/Bègles (Matthieu Jalibert, new signing Damian Penaud et al), Saracens and Ulster away, and Munster at home on New Year’s Day.
“This next block is so exciting for us as a group, to show how far we have come, with the teams we’ve going to face,” says Prendergast, almost giddily. “And nothing bigger than Leinster at home.”
Cian Prendergast Factfile
Born: 23rd February, 2000 (Age 23).
Place of birth: Co Kildare.
Height: 1.96ám (6ft 5in)
Weight: 112kg (17st 9lb)
School: Newbridge College
Connacht: Played 52 (7 tries).
Ireland Under-20s: 2 caps.
Ireland: 3 caps.
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