Ronan Michael revelling in his sporting life after landing in Super League
Dubliner began by playing union as a child before trying his hand at other code
Ronan Michael is the only Irish professional player in Super League in the last decade.
Rewind a few years. No one tells it like he does. It was two months out from his Leaving Cert. Ronan Michael was rugby mad. Loved playing. Loved the gym. Loved the discipline. Loved the routine. Loved his body getting large and lean. Loved the environment and the people who played, rugby union, league, sevens, tag. Loved playing.
He was lining up for another season with Clontarf after the exams. Loved his prospects, the breadth of his own ambition and enthusiasm and the fantastical dream that he would someday become a professional player.
It was a summer of loving the running and tackling and the feeling of worth and belonging it gave him. A teenage boy loving that he loved something so much. When he wasn’t playing he was thinking about rugby. When he wasn’t thinking about rugby he was playing, his teenage years turned on a narrow rugby life in Ireland.
“The phone call from Huddersfield,” he says. “Right, now there’s no Leaving Cert night out. You’re selling your Debs tickets. You’re selling your Electric Picnic tickets. You’re selling your Latitude tickets. But you don’t care. I was jumping around.
“A three-month trial. You’ve your CAO applications filled out. But you don’t care. I was buzzing, thinking I have to give this my all. Six years of doubters. People telling you maybe it’s time to relax with the rugby thing. Maybe it’s time to focus on the Leaving Cert. Maybe it’s time to take a course and go do it.
“There were so many people saying well what are you actually going to do. At 17 for this to come up. I’m smiling now thinking about it. What I was doing was going to learn a brand new sport in the north of England. In Huddersfield, where rugby league began.
“I’m going with a load of blokes who played rugby league their whole life. Probably their dads played rugby league. Blokes who had done scholarships at under-15 and under-16 that build them into a professional environment. What was I? I was just a union boy coming across trying to learn the sport.”
Michael at 17-years-old arrived in Huddersfield at the end of June just after his Leaving Cert and played in five academy games over that 2018 summer. Before that, eight games of rugby league was as much as he had played.
The five Huddersfield saw they liked. He turned 18-years-old and they signed him for a year with the academy. Last November at 20-years-old he came off the bench in the 54th minute for his senior team debut against Wigan.
Leinster Rugby is divided into a number of zones and Balbriggan, where Michael lived, was in the North East. He made the last round of the trials for North East under-16s. He didn’t get picked up. A knock back. He pulled himself together and thought ‘okay there’s next season’. Crush it. Next season came and went. Nothing.
He wanted to improve as a rugby union player in Ireland. But at Balbriggan he, along with four other players in the club, felt there was a divergence of interests and ambition. They said “okay we’ll move club.” Some decided to go to Skerries. Two of them, including Michael, thought Clontarf was the best option.
That was when he discovered the border wall between the North East and Metro districts in Leinster Rugby and how life will always step on you. To play with Clontarf, he was told he had to either switch schools or move house into the Metro area or take a year out from playing, a kind of sanitation period before he was allowed to re-engage with rugby union. Moving house or changing school was not possible. Taking the longer term view, he walked away for a year.
“Absolutely, it was a disappointment. It was one of those things that shaped me. At the time I thought my world had caved in,” he says. “This was my dream and I was feeling like everyone’s trying to stop you. I probably wasn’t as level headed then as I am now. All our parents were together and furious. It was that time of our lives when we wanted to improve ourselves. There was a lot of anger and a lot of misunderstanding as well.
“My mam wouldn’t have known very much. We’re not a rugby family.”
“Mam” is Canadian-Irish and his father is from the Caribbean. Michael has lived in Ireland for all of his memorable life.
“She was doing what she thought was best sending me to play locally. She was frustrated as well,” he says. “You are taking kids who are 16- or 17-years-old and saying they can’t play the sport they love. It was ridiculous. Soccer, you go from Home Farm to wherever. The kids move every year to chase a better opportunity. For open age rugby in rugby union you can move freely. For underage you can’t.
“It was gutting because we wanted to develop ourselves. It’s clear in union you’ve better chances if you are playing in a better team. You get noticed more, you develop more. That was our incentive.”
It toughened him. He’s even grateful, learned how to twist bad cess into plum juju. The head initially went down. But his personality is to drive on. He took the year out. He got fitter. He got stronger. He put on muscle mass and got leaner too. He started to play other sports. He went to the local GAA club, O’Dwyers and played football and hurling. He took up rugby league.
Believing rugby league was an Australian sport, he arrived at an Irish under-17 try out thinking it was something else, or not knowing. Teenagers. The game grabbed him. He was good and got on. When his year of union cold turkey was served, he fell back into Clontarf, played a season at 18s level and was loving it.
He arrived with his uncle, who did some agency work in Ireland. Uncle saw Michael playing and arranged for him and three other Irish players to go to Huddersfield after their mock exams in 2018. It was midterm, when they landed in England’s north.
The group trained with the academy, ran out with the first team and stayed for a week. Michael returned to Ireland, Clontarf Rugby Club and school. He was a month away from the Leaving Cert when the phone rang. It was Huddersfield. Sayonara Debs, goodbye Latitude.
“I was playing number 8 at that stage in Clontarf. During the year out in league I’d played backrow or prop. I was a sizable bloke and that let me play a proper backrow in league. I was in good nick for someone my age. I was 17-years-old and I was 98 kilos. It made sense for me to play prop.
“I knew I wanted to play pro rugby but I didn’t know I was going to end up over here playing rugby league. I was keeping myself fit for a reason. I couldn’t always pin point what that would end up being exactly. But I knew that was what I wanted to do.
He remembers his first league session. He was carrying the ball like a rugby union player. They were telling him you can’t carry like that, you can’t keep your head down, there are no rucks. He felt the running of the game was different, the demand on his cardio vascular system.
“Union is very position-specific. We don’t have to lift in lineouts or compete in scrums. I wouldn’t want to be scrumming against someone like Tadgh Furlong. I might fancy out running him,” he says.
“I can’t really tell you because I never made it to the elite level of union. Blokes in the middle of the park in my position are making 60-plus tackles and they could be making double digit carries as well.”
In the iconic rugby league movie, This Sporting Life, two main characters Frank Machin and Mrs Weaver have a tetchy exchange. “We don’t have stars in this game, Mrs Weaver, that’s soccer,” says the Richard Harris character, Machin. “What DO you have,” shoots Mrs Weaver. “People like me,” says Machin.
“If you look at someone like Sam Burgess, ” says Michael. “He played prop in league and went across to union and played centre or backrow. That shows what the transitions are like. Sonny Bill Williams, who was a backrow in Leeds, ended up playing outside centre in union. The players in the pack in league are like outside backs or backrowers in union.”
Michael signed his first team contract at the back end of 2019, the final year of academy. Huddersfield then had just struck a deal with Canberra Raiders, a National Rugby League (NRL) team, to get one player over with their under-20s for a year on a loan arrangement.
It hadn’t been done before. The first person to try it out, Michael, was sent to Australia in the New Year of 2020. Because there was no loan system between NRL and Super League, the choreography was to be released from Huddersfield and sign with Canberra, then sign up for the following season with Huddersfield.
Coronavirus struck. The season was cancelled with Canberra. Michael packed his sorry bags and came back to Ireland. Not contracted to Huddersfield until this season, he ended up cleaning windows, power washing and being an amateur again.
He sees the power hosing as a silver lining. Canberra was a knock back. The virus was an act of God. He was grateful to work. He understood that it wasn’t the professional athlete’s life he would have had in Australia. But in pandemic Ireland it was a privilege. He was working, training, playing with the amateur Irish Rugby League Longhorns, summering in Ireland so he could winter in Huddersfield.
“When I was in Australia I didn’t think I’d be making my (senior) debut that same year or winning an All-Ireland final with the Longhorns, or playing a little bit of Gaelic Football and hurling, then getting myself back to make my debut. All in the one year,” he says.
“Most people had the worst year of their life. It was probably the best year of mine. I’ll never look at 2020 as the big pandemic year.”
The 2021 Super League season started with a revised launch on March 26th and a World Cup comes at the back end of the year. Michael is named in the 30-man Huddersfield squad, the only professional Irish player in the game in a decade. At 20-years-old, his life has changed. But he hasn’t.
He’s loving the north of England, loving the soak of information from people who bleed the game. Loving they have played it for longer than he has been alive. Loving his twist of fate and this sporting life.