RugbyInterview

From Blackrock to New Zealand to Munster: Oli Jager has taken the road less travelled

The 28-year-old is enjoying being back home with the ‘simple things’ like a pint of Guinness and a packet of crisps

His accent betrays his life story to date. The day after his Leaving Cert in Blackrock College, Oli Jager upped sticks and moved to Christchurch, with notions of working and playing rugby, and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. New Zealand, he says, figured his life out for him.

Just over three weeks ago he came home to make a new home in Munster. Five years as a boarder had prepared him for life abroad, how to cook for himself, fend for himself, make new friends and basically make a home from home. He never felt homesickness in his life until last year when, for the first time, he pined for home.

Easy-going by nature, he’s already a contented Munster man, judging by his good-humoured demeanour in one of the canteen rooms in the province’s HPC during the week. And he’s rediscovered “stuff that you don’t really think about”. Like Kerrygold butter. And black pudding.

“And a good Guinness,” he declares, as opposed to the black stuff in New Zealand.

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“It tastes like wet cigarettes. It’s disgusting. Oh, and a nice wee pack of Taytos. Cheese and onion, or salt and vinegar. The simple things in life, and they’re the things that you appreciate the most when you come back.”

Best of all about being home is being nearer family.

“It’s absolutely fantastic to be home. If I have a day off, I can go up to Kildare and see my family and my mates in Dublin.”

Although born in London, he was reared in Ireland since his first birthday. His mother, Therese, hails from Kildare, and his father Ham was born in Rotterdam and grew up in The Hague.

“Born and raised in Holland and as Dutch as Dutch can be,” says Jager.

His parents met working in Heathrow airport for TWA and Jager has two younger brothers, Lars and Rolf. While his father played water polo for Holland, and a couple of uncles played rugby, Gaelic [football] was the main sport on his Irish side of the family.

“I played a little but I wasn’t co-ordinated enough, so the last real sport for me was rugby. I was getting a little bit fat as a kid and my dad said: ‘You need to do something here mate’. So I started playing rugby at nine or ten in Naas.”

He went to Newbridge College for one year but when his mother landed a job in Abu Dhabi, his only boarding school option in Ireland was Blackrock College.

“When I walked through it the first time I said: ‘This is the place for me’. I put my name down and a month later I was accepted.”

His brothers followed suit, and Lars still lives in Dublin while Rolf lives in Abu Dhabi.

“I have so many good memories from my time in Blackrock,” says Jager, as well as friends for life.

Jager played on the Garry Ringrose-inspired Senior Cup-winning team which beat a strong St Michael’s side featuring James Ryan, Ross Molony, Josh Murphy, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne and Cian Kelleher 23-20 in the 2013 final. Among Jager’s other team-mates were Charlie Rock, Jeremy Loughman and Nick Timoney.

“Definitely Garry was the star. In that last year at school it was clear that he was going to be one of the world’s best players.”

Initially, and after school, although built for the front row, Jager was the reluctant prop.

“I started out at prop because I was fat,” he says disarmingly. “But once we went to the full field kind of thing, and when I started growing a bit, I played lock and then moved to ‘6′ or ‘8′ for a long time.”

Midway through his first JCT season, at 14, Blackrock had injuries in their front row. The coach scanned the squad and guess who was chosen to fill the void? After returning to the back row, the same happened in his first SCT year at an-house trial game.

Jager played twice for the Ireland Under-18 schools’ team but Leinster told him he needed to do another year in school in order to be considered for their academy.

He’d planned to go to Auckland, work on a farm and play club rugby, but he and his dad spoke with Tony Smeeth, who was sending young players from Trinity to the Crusaders International High Performance in Christchurch. Jager’s name was included among the applicants and within a few days he was accepted.

This stint led to a season of senior club rugby in the back-row with New Brighton RFC in 2014, but in his fourth game he suffered a torn ACL. The Crusaders academy manager, Aaron Webb, called Jager on a Friday asking him into his office on the Monday.

“I was pretty nervous because I knew he was either going to tell me that I’m in or I’m not. I went into his office on crutches. He said: ‘I know you want to be a ‘6′/’8′ but we have a spot in the academy and you have to be a prop.”

Webb passed him the academy papers.

“By the time he’d finished talking I’d already signed every page. Someone wanted me and I was really loving New Zealand. I never really wanted to go to college, and especially after I was told I wasn’t in the Leinster academy, I wanted to get out of Ireland, to do something different and I think what I did was pretty damned different, honestly.”

“No homesickness whatsoever. I was a fish in water. I wanted to be there for as long as I could.”

A year in the Crusaders academy and playing with Canterbury’s provincial side led to seven years of Super Rugby and seven championships – five Super Rugby titles and two Super Rugby Aoteroa crowns.

“I was very, very fortunate to be part of those teams,” he says, listing off some of his illustrious team-mates, and he still counts several of them among his best friends for life; Tom Sanders, Ethan Blackadder, Brodie McAlister, George Bridge and others.

Jager lived through the pandemic in New Zealand.

“It was good at the start but in the long-term was probably more detrimental because we started getting it as everybody else was growing immune to it. We had three more lockdowns, but never a lockdown like here, for months on end. The most would have been five or six weeks.

“It was different. We pretty much didn’t miss a beat in rugby, even if we had to play the same teams over and over again and it did get a bit mundane after a while.”

Jager and wife Georgi, who is following him over to Limerick in January, married in Christchurch at the end of 2022. This was also the first time he met his parents and brothers in over three years dating back to his trip home in 2019.

Jager started 11 games in 2022, but despite playing only five times in their 2023 title run, it’s the year he recalls most fondly.

It transpired to be his last year too. More than that though, Jager underwent neck fusion – always a particularly disconcerting procedure for a front-rower – at the end of 2022, and spent much of 2023 watching his team-mates train and play.

In his second game back as a replacement, Jager sustained a cut knee which turned sceptic, requiring more surgery and another three weeks on the sidelines, by which stage the Crusaders were in the knockout stages.

“Everybody was injured. I’ve never seen a team with so many front row injuries in my life and I was the last tighthead available, because Tamaiti Williams had moved over to cover loosehead. I appreciate the coaches trusted me, and then those last three games were probably the best games I’ve ever played, in my opinion.”

Jager scored a try in the third minute of his return, as the Crusaders beat the Fijian Drua 49-8, and after a 52-15 semi-final win over the Blues, went to a rain-soaked Hamilton and defiantly denied the Chiefs 25-20.

“I’m sure if you talk to Alex Nankivell or John Ryan they might have a different view,” Jager says of his Chiefs’ opponents turned Munster team-mates, “but the atmosphere was fantastic.

“The game was tight. It wasn’t an easy game to win. I went off after 78 minutes, a big old slog. Pull up your sleeves, get your head into dark places and do whatever you needed to do. That was one of my favourite games. I don’t really know if there’s a better way to sign off.”

Naturally, having qualified through residency and been told by coaches that he could make the All Blacks, Jager harboured ambitions of doing so.

“I thought: ‘Why not just go hell for leather into this? I don’t see myself going home any time soon’. This was about 2020/21. And I did. I tried my best.”

He was named in the All Blacks XV squad that played an Ireland A side in the RDS just over a year ago but, ironically, was ruled out of the tour by that aforementioned neck injury.

“In the end it was probably best I didn’t [tour] especially when my neck started going downhill and I had the surgery. I really started thinking a lot. By this stage I’d been ten years away from Ireland. Obviously, people had been away from Ireland longer.

“But I’d lived my whole adult life in New Zealand and I started thinking: ‘I think I should go home.’ I remember talking to my wife about it. We were bouncing ideas around and I said to her: ‘One day I want to go home and play in Ireland’.”

He’d also missed family 21sts, brothers’ birthdays, cousins’ birthdays, weddings, funerals . . . He’d been a family member in absentia for too long. Although his parents will be in Abu Dhabi, he will spend Christmas Day with one of his uncles in Dunlavin, Kildare, and with his grandparents, from Kilcullen, before experiencing his first St Stephen’s Day derby against Leinster at Thomond Park.

At 28, he’s not going to lie. Part of his rationale for returning home is a desire to play for Ireland.

“I think if you play professional rugby and you’re not aiming to be the best and playing at the highest level, I don’t know if you’re in the right place. It would be an honour. I would love to do it. It’s definitely run through my mind.”

Nor, after a decade in New Zealand, has he any conflicts about his new status in life.

“I’m a Munster boy now,” he declares. Ideally, he’d like to spend the rest of his career here. “I’d be more than happy to do that. Yeah, I would absolutely love it.”

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Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times