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Oli Jager nails bomb squad role on debut as he realises Ireland ambition

Having thought he had left it too late, the tighthead prop becomes an Irish international at 28

Spilling over the sides of a flimsy plastic chair in the back corridor of Aviva Stadium, the broad frame of his international water polo playing father, Harm, comes with Oli Jager. The Irish prop is in reflective mode after a whirlwind few months and first Irish cap.

The tighthead, looking all the world like a 19th century circus strongman with his shaved head and luxuriant, thickset moustache reaching down to the corners of his mouth, arrived on to the Lansdowne Road pitch with Ryan Baird, Rónan Kelleher and James Ryan shortly after half-time. Jager was part of the bomb squad, sent in to steady a creaking Irish side during a Welsh upsurge.

“I have no words to describe it,” he says. “I felt it when the anthems came on and I just managed to push it back down ... I didn’t shed a tear. It’s a hard thing to put into words. Its such a wonderful feeling to get that first cap. I had been just putting it off for the whole week, just playing it down.

“But last night there was definitely a few butterflies floating around and this morning, I was kacking it. I don’t think I have ever been so nervous before a game. I enjoyed every minute of it.”


After a day he fought to hold a tight rein on his emotions and gather his nerves, the 54th minute was a moment Jager had imagined from way back during his years in Newbridge and Blackrock College. Turning 29 in July, he thought he had spent too long away from home, been too far away and too much out of sight that any dreamy chance to play for Ireland had sailed past.

Like Tadhg Beirne moving to Wales, Jager’s storied path to an Irish shirt has a prodigal son aspect to it. Although he played on the Irish under-18 team, he missed out on a Leinster academy place in 2013. That’s when rugby took him to Christchurch and Crusaders. Eleven years on, Munster saw him as the right fit for their frontrow and last year his half-Dutch 6ft 4in frame arrived in Limerick.

“I’ll be honest,” he says. “There probably was a point where I was thinking I should have come home earlier and I should have done other things differently. It definitely came to a point where I thought the boat had sailed and I would just have to live with that.”

The return home and having a higher profile with Munster was a catalyst for the Irish call.

“I definitely think so. Being in Ireland was the main thing and just the fact I was playing at home with Munster and in big games too. Champions Cup games and Leinster on Stephen’s Day. Those games definitely did help.

“Don’t get me wrong, playing with the Crusaders was a real high point as well and I was able to show Andy [Farrell] and Fogs [John Fogerty] and Paul [O’Connell] that I could play at a higher level when I was playing for them. That helped me with the transition. I always believed I could do something and thankfully it came.”

This week Jager roomed with a familiar face, the as yet uncapped Tom Ahern, his Munster team-mate. But unlike relatively new players like fullback Ciarán Frawley and winger Calvin Nash, who have been around Irish camp for longer and can plug into the systems quickly, Jager’s last few months have been a crash course in international rugby.

He was not explicitly told by Farrell that he was coming on but he allowed himself positive notions. Few frontrows play for the full 80 minutes and Farrell had selected a 6-2 split on the bench for a reason. With around 25 minutes remaining against Wales Jager got more pitch time than he expected, most of it with Kelleher at hooker and Cian Healy on the loosehead side.

“I watched the Six Nations last year,” he says. “There was obviously ... you know ... I was bloody stoked to see them go off and win the Grand Slam. But there was also a little bit of jealously in thinking that I wish I could be part of it. I wish I could at least have the chance.


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“But yeah, that was also during the time I was recovering from neck surgery so I wasn’t actually playing any rugby, so that was making it even harder again. Yeah it’s funny how things change in a year, how fast things go and go a different path than we thought they were going to go.”

For England in two weeks time at Twickenham Farrell has hard choices. Finlay Bealham started against Italy with Tom O’Toole and Jeremy Loughman on the bench, both of them listed as being able to play as loosehead and tighthead props. Either way Jager has arrived along a path less travelled.