‘Strong, smart, confident’: Dan Leavy is the young man for the big occasion
Since his Junior Cup days, the talented Ireland flanker’s ability on the field has stood out
Ireland’s flanker Dan Leavy reacts his side’s defeat of France at the Stade de France in Paris. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images
Back in 2009, St Michael’s faced an all-conquering Clongowes Wood team in the quarter-finals of the Leinster Schools Junior Cup. Clongowes, powered by the Byrne brothers who packed down in Leinster’s frontrow last night, had never lost in three years, and had beaten St Michael’s in a friendly earlier that season by 68-10. The game was played in Anglesea Road, and even the St Michael’s supporters presumed it be a tanking. Inspired by a 14-year-old Dan Leavy, St Michael’s won 15-14.
“Dan was incredible,” recalls Andy Skehan, the director of rugby at St Michael’s. “It was like Dan had announced himself as a player. It was one of the most outrageous performances I’ve ever seen by a 14-year-old boy. Mental.
“He just seemed to be everywhere on the pitch. He was continuously having involvements; making a tackle, getting up, influencing the ruck, carrying the ball. It was an all-action performance.”
“Everybody who saw it was a bit shell-shocked. We knew he was a good player, but nobody had ever really thought about Dan like that before. That was the day I thought: ‘Wow, this guy is capable of extraordinary things.’” By the time he was in fifth year I was thinking, ‘It is going to happen’.”
This was also the first clear sign that Leavy relishes a big occasion and a challenge, for it would prove a recurring theme.
St Michael’s lost the Junior Cup final 5-3 against Terenure, but three seasons later Leavy captained St Michael’s to another surprise win over Clongowes, so denying them a third Cup in a row, in the Senior final by 17-10 with another man of the match performance.
“Yeah, that’s Dan,” says Skehan. “He is a driven lad and he loves competition. He absolutely thrives on that. The idea of playing a huge game gets him excited not fearful. They were massive underdogs for that final as well. I coached Ed Byrne up in UCD, and he told me he only ever lost two games for Clongowes, one in the Junior Cup and one in the Senior Cup and they were both against Michael’s.”
Best player on the pitch
And both times Leavy was the best player on the pitch.
“In that Senior Cup final we were up 10-3 and with about seven minutes to play Dan basically scored a try by himself. He just broke four or five tackles for the try.”
One of the enlarged framed photographs adorning the school gym, about eight feet wide and five feet high, is of Leavy scoring that try. That must please him no end.
“He lived right beside the school; like literally he hopped over the wall,” recalls Skehan. “He lived on Ailesbury Wood, not Ailesbury Road. It’s in one of the lanes. They’re not modest houses, but they’re more modest than Ailesbury Road!”
“He was always an athletic young fella, and in first year I remember his coach saying ‘Jesus, yer man is very talented’. But he wasn’t as dedicated as James Ryan from the off. He was much more ‘take it or leave it’ up until he was about 16. He nearly didn’t make that Junior Cup team, believe it or not.”
“It was the same in his transition year. His dad came up to me one day and said: ‘I can’t get him playing rugby.’ He was playing soccer at Railway Union and I had a chat with him, as did a lot of the staff in the school. ‘We need to get you back playing.’ So Dan came back and he never looked back.”
That year Leavy made the St Michael’s Senior Cup team which lost the 2010 final to Clongowes 38-20.
“In fourth year, his first year on the team, he was brilliant,” says Skehan. “He was a real stringy young fella but by the time he was in sixth year he looked like he was a professional athlete.”
There’s no rugby in the family tree, but Leavy’s father, Donal, who works in textiles, and his mum, Ailish, have been constant sources of support. Leavy’s brother Adam, a winger, was a replacement in that final victory over Clongowes and is now in the Connacht academy. Their sister Rachel is also very good at sport.
“He was a good student; smart and clever. He did a good Leaving Cert, a score around the 500-point mark,” says Skehan. “He’s also a very confident young fella. Some people might take him up the wrong way, but actually that’s quite refreshing sometimes. He’s able to have a bit of a laugh at himself.”
Leavy went straight into the Leinster academy, while playing for UCD (where he graduated with a degree in business and law) and also cutting his teeth in Leinster’s British & Irish Cup team.
Then an elite player development officer, John Fogarty, now the Leinster scrum coach, has watched Leavy’s rise, which probably would have been quicker but for injuries and the backrow logjam in the province.
“Dan hasn’t changed a whole lot since his school days,” says Fogarty. “The first time I saw him play was a St Michael’s-Blackrock game on the front pitch in Blackrock one Saturday morning before Christmas, and even though he wasn’t huge, he was exceptionally strong over the ball. He’d turn over the ball, then he’d be involved in a ruck maybe two rucks later, then he carried the ball and scored a try. He didn’t mind getting into a ruck to turn over ball and getting clattered and walloped.
“When I got to know him he was very confident, very assured of himself. It can ruffle people the wrong way but he’s also not silly enough to ignore advice. He does take things on board and he’s probably more aware of himself now than he ever was.”
Fogarty admits that Leavy, not unusual for a player out of school, didn’t fully appreciate some part of his game, like his line-out work and footwork, and needed to improve. “He didn’t initially see that, because he is so gifted in the loose. He has such a good appreciation of space. He has a real low centre of gravity. He can move through and out of contact, and he can shift the ball and link.”
Mentally, as well as physically and technically, Fogarty suggests Leavy needed a full three-year cycle in the academy. He cites his appetite for scrummaging and mauling nowadays, and how much better he knows his roles.
“He’s a very ambitious kid, very driven,” adds Fogarty. “He’s loads of enthusiasm and energy for the game. He’s a good kid.”
“I remember first seeing him playing for St Michael’s school in a couple of cup finals and the first thing that struck me was his ability to win the ball at the breakdown,” says Ruddock.
“He looked like a man among schoolboys really, and when we took him into the 20s that ability to turn the ball over was outstanding. He got around the park, and would always do the traditional backrow work, in terms of the hard stuff. He could get down and dirty.
“What also struck me is that you could have a conversation with Dan and it was like talking to a 28-year-old, and he had this steely confidence and determination to go to the top. With some players you just feel that off them.”
So Ruddock made Leavy captain of the Irish Under-20s for the 2014 Six Nations.
“I’m an old-school sort of coach and for all the skills involved in the game it’s still a collision-based game and it’s a game of attitude and of will to win as well. You’ve got to have that mental toughness as well as that genuine physical toughness in the modern game, and I just felt he had that in abundance.”
Ruddock, whose Lansdowne side are clear leaders in Division 1A of the Ulster Bank League in chasing a home semi-final, says Leavy was part of a new breed along with Chris Farrell, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong among others. “Just a really good crop of modern professionals. You could just sense a lot of these guys were on their way to something pretty extraordinary really, and Dan is only going to get better and better.”
In 2014-15 Leavy made three appearances off the bench and was upped to a pro contract. He made his first competitive start in September 2015 in the not so rarefied surrounds of Meggetland, in front of a crowd of 2,479, for a Pro12 game which Leinster lost 16-9.
Kevin McLaughlin captained Leinster in what would prove to be his last game before being forced to retire, and is now the vice president of operations for Kitman Labs, an Irish tech firm which is helping to reduce and manage injuries in sport.
“He was a good bit smaller then; he’s put on a lot of weight in the last couple of years,” says McLaughlin. “I remember him in training and Dan, from day one, got stuck in. He wanted to make a statement. He didn’t want to just warm the bench. He wanted that starting jersey. Dan would be really physical and a pain in the ass.”
McLaughlin has been equally impressed by the way Leavy’s career has since progressed.
“I haven’t actually seen him have a bad game. A little bit like Jamie [Heaslip], he’s able to play with a smile on his face but be a tough professional on himself, which is a pretty amazing attribute to have. Some players take a while to adapt to a higher level, others take to it like a fish to water. Dan’s definitely in the latter, and that’s what we’ve seen in the Six Nations so far.
“I love watching Dan play. He relishes the physicality. Every time he goes into a defensive breakdown you’re almost expecting a turnover. It’s a skill that’s becoming harder and harder to execute with the new rules, but he’s very fast at getting over the ball, and his ability to stay on his feet in the tackle is pretty impressive.
Impact the game
“You want a ‘7’ who can impact the game. Against Wales, we were under pressure and he made a key turnover on our 10-metre line that shifted the momentum. And he delivers that every single game.”
Leavy made his Ireland debut at home to Canada in November 2016, and his second cap as a replacement for the last 14 minutes of last season’s win over England after Heaslip was a late withdrawal and he was promoted from 24th man just before kick-off.
He’s been very impressive. I can speak from first hand, he’s a pain in the hole to play against and that’s a great compliment from a backrow
Two weeks later, he made his first European Cup start in the quarter-final win against Wasps at the Aviva Stadium. “The coaches had been talking about getting him more involved that season because we could see how strong he was in contact,” says Fogarty, “and we knew the importance of that in Europe, having a guy that can break tackles and get offloads away, to be a genuine threat on the ball. He was excellent in that game. Straight to it, duck to water.”
Similarly, Leavy seamlessly replaced the stricken Josh van der Flier in the first half in Paris, and he backed that up with big 80-minute games in the wins over Italy and especially Wales. Like Ryan (six wins out of six) and Jacob Stockdale (seven wins out of seven), Leavy is also unbeaten in his seven Tests to date.
Peter O’Mahony this week spoke of the infusion of young players who’ve assumed responsibility as if they’ve had 15 or 20 Tests under them already. “It’s incredible the way they carry themselves, and that kind of a boost to the squad is invaluable.”
Leavy is very much one of those.
“He’s been very impressive. I can speak from first hand, he’s a pain in the hole to play against and that’s a great compliment from a backrow. And he’s been super to play alongside the last few weeks. He’s been a great voice. He’s doing an incredible amount of learning quickly, and I’m doing some learning off him as well. The way he plays the game, it’s obviously very physical and intense, but it’s also very smart, and he’s been brilliant for us the last three weeks.”
Dan’s the young man for the big occasion.