Schooled in rugby, Crowley’s curve continues upwards with some quality guidance

Ireland under-20 outhalf bent the ear of Ronan O’Gara as part of his education as a No 10

The rugby posts stand like sentinels in the paddock adjoining his family home in Innishannon and that's where Jack Crowley can be found at some point every day, a bag of rugby balls for company.

It's never a chore; he's content with the solitude and the practice regimen, more so following a chat with former Munster, Ireland and Lions outhalf and current La Rochelle head coach Ronan O'Gara, last August.

Crowley was a standout player for Noel McNamara's Ireland under-20 team that won the first three matches in the Under-20 Six Nations Championship before the tournament was shelved due to the Coronavirus.

A product of Bandon Rugby Club and Bandon Grammar School before switching to Cork Constitution to broaden his rugby education in the All-Ireland League, the young outhalf, who turned 20 in January, had played for the Ireland Under-19s and Munster A in the Celtic Cup. However, it was his exceptional performances for the Irish 20s in televised victories over Scotland, Wales and England that brought a wider appreciation of his talent.

When he sat down with O’Gara last summer Crowley was keen to extract everything he could from the conversation to provide fresh impetus to a career that in his eyes had stalled a little. He explained: “I hadn’t really kicked on from Irish 19s. I was playing Celtic Cup [for Munster A] and as a 10 you want to be playing outhalf but I was playing fullback for most of the matches.

“Obviously it is a brilliant opportunity to learn the game from back there but I wanted to play 10 as much as possible, still do, to develop my game. I have so much still to learn. I was chatting to him about playing 10 and what you have to do to play there. It was brilliant to be able to talk to someone of his calibre.

“We had a general chat initially; he wanted to find out about me, because he wouldn’t have known much about my background. We started discussing the 10 role, game management and that kind of stuff. He spoke to me a little bit about his time at the Crusaders, their mentality and mindset going into games.”

O'Gara spoke to Crowley about Crusaders and New Zealand outhalf Richie Mo'unga and how a few years ago he had a reputation for being a bit of a messer, albeit one with great natural ability. Crowley continued: "He put a routine in place and Mo'unga started taking it [his rugby] seriously. Now he's become a great All Black.

“I asked him about his famous spirals to try and bring them to my game. We talked through the technique and also the big stage pressure goal-kicking wise, that mental side of the game.

"When he reflected on kicking Munster to Heineken Cup wins and Ireland to Grand Slam victories, he said the one thing he put it down to was that he had confidence and belief in himself. That he had repped it so much before in training, he knew he had it in the bank if he got the right ball at the right time. He had belief based on reps and reps."

The posts on the family land facilitate that practice ethic, no doubt grateful for his oldest brother Jerry’s Christmas present one year. “I am fortunate enough that I live out in the countryside and I have a paddock next to my house that has goalposts. I have used it to practice for most of my teen life. It was my brother’s Christmas present back in 2007. They appeared in the field one morning.”

Crowley's father, Fachtna, played for Bandon, so there was no surprise that his sons, Jerry, Billy and Jack would gravitate towards the club in a playing capacity, the latter from the age of four. His time in the West Cork club culminated in a memorable triumph when Bandon beat Skerries 20-7 in the 2018 All-Ireland Under-18 League final, Crowley chipping in with 15 points.

The fact that uncles on both his father’s and mother Maria’s side of the family – there is little doubt that his sister Tessa saw her fair share of games too – also played for Bandon underlines the role that the club has played in family life and his subsequent development in rugby terms.

From that perspective he benefited from the guidance of current Toulouse forwards coach Régis Sonnes, who coached Crowley at both the club and the Grammar School. He laughed: "He was pretty special, a one off and a great character. He was the most French, Frenchman that you could ever get.

“It’d be mid November, a storm outside, freezing cold, yet he would have his Crocs on with no socks, his cotton sweater and his beret, heading for the coffee shop. I learnt so much from him, he gave me my first bit of proper coaching. There was no better man.”

A scrumhalf on the SCT in fourth year, he played both halfback positions in fifth year, and was outhalf and captain in his final year, when Bandon lost a Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-final 19-18 to Pres Cork.

He moved to Con where he came under the coaching tutelage of former Munster forwards coach Brian Hickey and made his All-Ireland League debut in a league game against Terenure at Lakelands, coming on when outhalf Aidan Moynihan suffered a leg injury.

"I didn't get the 10 shirt initially on merit, it happened because Aidan got injured. I learned a great deal from him and off others in the club. Duncan Williams, a Munster veteran inside me [at scrumhalf] and the likes of Niall Kenneally and Alex McHenry in the centre helped me a huge amount.

“It’s paramount for a 10 to get game time to develop, be that club, province or school. You can train all you like but until you are put into a match scenario, having to make decisions, you won’t learn until you make a mistake on the pitch.

“That’s how you get better is by being thrown into the deep end and; if you can survive, brilliant, you can prove yourself and if not then you have works-on to do. I think that is the best way for a 10 to develop and learn.”

He certainly proved he had the aptitude, a fact reinforced by his recent selection as the AIL Division 1A 'Breakout player of the year'. Ireland Under-20s coach Noel McNamara handed him the number 10 jersey for the opening match against Scotland in Musgrave Park and Crowley responded with a man-of-the-match performance, encompassing two tries and 18 points, a highlight a brilliant 75-metre run in the preamble to his second.

He recalled: “It was one of those things that happened. When I picked up the ball, I didn’t have many options. There was no one behind me to pass the ball to clear and there was a relatively strong breeze blowing against us so I wasn’t going to try and kick from the middle of the pitch and risk my team having a poor chase.

“I looked up and decided to go for it. I didn’t expect to get through. After I beat the first defender I realised I had to pin back the ears and go. It was one of those things where you react to a situation. What was going through my head was that the fullback was probably going to chop tackle me. Instead he came to take me high.

“I tried to dummy just to see if he would check a bit. He didn’t buy it because it wasn’t a great dummy. Then I decided I was going to try a one-handed offload to Dan [Kelly] as I was being tackled. The fullback came high on me and I decided to try and hand him off. If he got me I was going to pop it off for Dan.

“I don’t know what happened but he lost his grip and the next thing he was on the floor. It was a pretty weird moment. Dan probably deserved to get the ball after supporting me up the field for 70 metres.”

Crowley scored 11 points on a 36-22 win against Wales and then nine in a famous 39-21 victory against an unbeaten England side at Franklin’s Gardens. The latter triumph in which Ireland scored six tries was particularly satisfying, albeit that Crowley argues that the team still had scope to improve despite the three wins.

The manner of those wins resonated with the public, free-flowing and expansive in attack, the players actively encouraged to pursue a heads-up style of rugby, and back their skill sets. “He [McNamara] said to us that, ‘there is a structure within an unstructured attack’ and if you need that structure you can go back to it but that structure is just the building blocks for our attack.

“As you saw the majority of our tries came from blindside attack, line-breaks, offloads, things like that. We might have scored of one or two set pieces but other than that it was all openfield attack. That was the environment that Noel and the other coaches created.

“At the end of the day they can only do so much, provide you with information. It’s up to us to make decisions in the moment and that was what our training was built around. We weren’t told what to do, we had to figure it out and react accordingly. As a result we were able to play what was out in front of us. We slowly developed that decision making. It showed in our matches that if any attack broke down we were able to find the solution and play on.”

It would be something of a travesty if they were unable to finish the campaign but as things stand that eventuality appears increasingly likely.

Crowley, currently in Munster's sub academy, is hoping to progress into the academy and then the senior set-up where he'll join Jake Flannery and Ben Healy, both members of the Ireland 20's Grand Slam-winning team from last season, in trying to exert some pressure on Joey Carbery, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal.

Outside his province, Harry Byrne, Ciarán Frawley, Michael Lowry, Angus Curtis and Conor Fitzgerald are other young players with designs on a 10 shirt at representative level. Whenever the season resumes/starts Crowley will look to continue that upward spiral. Until then those hours spent in the paddock will have to suffice, O'Gara's words a soundtrack to the practice.