Rugby can be a brutally tough sport which has seen many outstanding players retire prematurely. But there seems to be something particularly cruel that Dan Leavy’s career has been cut off in its prime following the announcement on Tuesday morning that the 27-year-old has been forced to retire from the sport with immediate effect on medical grounds.
This follows a three-year battle to overcome the serious knee injury he suffered in a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in March 2019 when aged only 24 and possibly still not at the peak of his considerable powers.
The previous season, 2017-18, undoubtedly marked the high point of his career. After replacing the injured Josh van der Flier in the first half of Ireland's opening Six Nations game in Paris, thereafter he played every minute of that Grand Slam campaign.
Leavy was also a major contributor to Leinster’s Champions Cup and Pro 14 double that season, starting all of the European knock-out wins against Saracens, Scarlets and Racing 92.
Exceptionally athletic, fearless and fearsome in equal measure, Leavy was a dynamic tackler and carrier who could almost bend games to his will like few others.
Confident and bright, he seemed to relish rugby’s physicality – for Leavy had an edge to his game too. He was also superb over the ball, and there is a particularly cruel irony in him suffering that fateful knee injury with a double, side entry clearout, which have since been made illegal.
His loss was hugely felt in 2019 to both Leinster, and perhaps even more so Ireland. He had been so influential in that Grand Slam campaign that you can't help but wonder what he might have contributed at the World Cup.
"I'd like to thank Andy Williams, my surgeon, and Karl Denvir, my physio in Leinster, for all that they have done for me in the years since then. I can take solace from the fact that I tried everything over the last three years," said Leavy, and there can be no doubt that all parties tried everything in their power in the player's attempted recovery.
Indeed, in his first attempted comeback toward the end of 2020, Leavy looked on the road back to his former self, but ultimately he has only played 16 more games since that fateful quarter-final due to further complications with his knee, and a wrist injury.
"I am very proud of all that I achieved in my short time as a professional," Leavy added. "Some amazing highs with my brothers in blue and in green and I am beyond grateful for those days and those moments, especially the highs of 2018 in Bilbao, the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham.
“More than that I am proud of how I carried myself, in particular over the last few years, and I hope I represented my club, my country, my family and friends to the best of my abilities in those years.
"I am beyond grateful to them all for their support and in particular to my mum and dad, Eilish and Donal, my sister, Rachel, and my brother, Adam," added Leavy, who also thanked Leo Cullen for his "unbelievable support to me over the last few years. On the field, and off, and I cannot thank him enough.
“This is not the end I had hoped for, but as I look back, at the highs and the lows, they have all been shared with the best team-mates, family and friends around me, and what more could I ask for?”
The Munster captain, Peter O’Mahony, who has himself come back from a career-threatening knee injury, said: “I certainly want to start off by saying I’m gutted to hear the news for him. An incredible athlete, an incredible rugby player, but he’s a top man which is more important.
“Playing alongside him, I was lucky enough to do it in the 2018 season when we won the Slam, and he was into everything, an incredibly pivotal role in that campaign and that team. He really kicked on into that group, that younger age group that’s with Ireland, and was destined for great things.
“It’s very tough for everyone playing rugby in Ireland, to hear that kind of news. Just a good person, mainly, that’s the main reason. An incredible rugby player that Leinster and Ireland have lost. It’s sad news.”
Ever since the then 14-year-old Leavy inspired St Michael’s to a 15-14 win over a then dominant Clongowes side in the Leinster Schools Junior Cup quarter-final in 2009, Andy Skehan, the director of rugby at St Michael’s, along with others in the school, knew that he was an exceptional talent.
“It was like Dan had announced himself as a player,” Skehan once told The Irish Times. “It was one of the most outrageous performances I’ve ever seen by a 14-year-old boy. Mental.”
Leavy also captained St Michael’s to a surprise win over Clongowes, so denying them a three-in-a-row , three years later in the senior final by 17-10 with one of his trademark man-of-the-match performances.
Coaches such as Mike Ruddock talked of a young player mature beyond his years both on and off the pitch, and accordingly made him captain of the Irish under-20s for the 2014 Six Nations.
Leavy went on to play 79 times for Leinster since his debut against Edinburgh in October 2014 and won the last of his 11 caps for Ireland in the win over Argentina in November 2018. In those 11 Tests he was never once on the losing side.
Dan Leavy’s star shone brightly, albeit too briefly.
Dan Leavy factfile
DOB: May 23rd, 1994
Height: 6' 3"
Weight: 16st 7lbs
Leinster caps/tries: 79/ 17
Ireland caps/tries: 11 /3