Leinster’s Max Deegan content he is heading in the right direction
Former World Rugby Junior Player of the Year fighting for place in backrow logjam
Leinster’s Max Deegan was named World Rugby Junior Player of the Year in 2016. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
There have only been 11 of them. Among the names are England’s George Ford, Aaron Cruden, Julian Savea, and South Africa’s Handre Pollard. Three years ago, it was Max Deegan who beat the rest of the field. World Rugby Junior Player of the Year. One of 11.
Ireland’s interest prior to that had bubbled with Leinster’s Garry Ringrose in 2014 and Munster’s JJ Hanrahan in 2012. Jamie Heaslip was there too among the close but no cigar nominees.
Reaching further back to 2010, a young New Zealand captain, Tyler Bleyendaal, who would become a residency Irish player with Munster, was also nominated but gave way to that’s year’s winner Savea.
Despite Irish team affairs being as they are, you would be wrong to think he has had regular conversations with Irish coach Joe Schmidt
In the previous incarnations of the awards at Under-19 and Under-21 levels, the late Jerry Collins won the first in 1999. Not without kudos Keith Wood and Johnny Sexton bookended the sprawl of senior winners from 2001 to 2018.
But no Irish player apart from Deegan has had his name engraved on the junior award with his run to the world final that year with the under-20s earning him a senior contract with Leinster in 2017 as the province cherry picked five of that year’s team for the Academy.
Three years later a junior Slam finale in Wales is threatening to spill more talent into the pool as Deegan learns how relentlessly competitive the backrow has become in Leinster.
Despite Irish team affairs being as they are, you would be wrong to think he has had regular conversations with Irish coach Joe Schmidt.
“No, there wouldn’t be (conversations),” he says flatly. At number eight, six, blindside, Deegan is taking what comes to him. Even with Heaslip’s retirement and Jordi Murphy’s move to Ulster in recent years a testy log jam has developed.
“I like playing six and I think I have a good grasp of it, lineout and stuff,” he says.
“I’m not fully used to playing six but it’s something I would like to get used to playing. Just with the players we had it’s kinda fill lads in spots. So if I can cover a bit of seven I’d be happy to do that. There’s a bit of that. More and more it’s going to be eight, six.”
All because of Jack Conan, Will Connors, Caelan Doris, Mick Kearney, Dan Leavy, Josh Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Scott Fardy if they need him, Leinster have no shortage with players honing their skills in a needs must way to pinch game time.
At 22-years-old Deegan doesn’t have to rush. An athletic ball carrying type of player beloved by French teams, he is not the wrecking ball of a Sean O’Brien or like Leavy throwing his head in among the boots and knees of the breakdown.
His season so far has been half the time as a bench player and the other half starting in a 9-8 split over 17 matches. But five out of his last seven games have been 80 minute runs.
At the moment I want to be able to step in, give a performance good enough to be worthy of making an impact in a Champions Cup game
“I’d a slower start than I would have liked to,” he says hopeful for this week’s trip to Edinburgh, a dead rubber for Leinster but a useful platform for players with Ulster and the Champions Cup quarter-final on their minds.
“But I think I’ve come into a good run of games over the last break over Christmas and I’m going well game to game. So yeah, hopefully I can keep that going, keep getting better towards the end of the year.”
Leinster are not unaware of Deegan’s potential. This time last season coach Leo Cullen called him a “serious talent” with the player himself appearing patient with his balance of learning curve experience and a back seat view.
The label of the World Rugby award could become a millstone. But he potters away content the direction is right. No pressure, he says.
“I don’t think so. I think Leo dealt with us younger lads as he would with any younger lads, build you through training first. So no, no I didn’t feel anything.”
It is a precarious line Leinster continuously walk with provincial migration accelerating. In Deegan there is a simple groove to follow, the head on challenge perhaps provoking greater things. He knows from 2016 the DNA is there.
“At the moment I want to be able to step in, give a performance good enough to be worthy of making an impact in a Champions Cup game,” he explains. “A good enough performance to be in there with the guys playing with Ireland.”
Do that and the call from Schmidt won’t be far away. It wasn’t for Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan, who Deegan beat to that world award not so long ago.