Seán Scanlon well-versed in the realities of rugby’s roads less travelled

32-year-old retired this year after spending most of career in English Championship

Seán Scanlon of Rotherham Titans is tackled by Ryan Jones of Bristol during the Greene King IPA Championship Playoff Semi-Final in 2015. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Seán Scanlon of Rotherham Titans is tackled by Ryan Jones of Bristol during the Greene King IPA Championship Playoff Semi-Final in 2015. Photo: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

 

Seán Scanlon went away to come back. The premise is simple and familiar to many young Irish rugby players who travel abroad in seeking to emerge from the thicket of aspiring rugby professionals and secure employment in the sport.

There is a pathway limited by numbers in Ireland, a fixed number of senior contracts that is oversubscribed. Good fortune and timing carry almost as meaningful a coefficient as talent even for those who start out in academies.

An alternative is to head for the second tier leagues in England or France hoping to return home as a prodigal son with a fatted contract at the invitation of one of the provinces or to find a route to the Premiership or Top 14.

It’s a commitment that requires courage, resilience, luck and a real love of the sport because the call may never come, nor the chance to command a six-figure salary.

The initial sheen of adventure is eventually worn away by the practicality of making a living and that arguably asks a great deal more of a person than ability on a pitch, including finding time to earn supplemental income.

Scanlon retired earlier this year, almost a decade after making his Munster debut on a rugby journey that took in Rotherham, Doncaster and Nottingham, the byways of English club rugby.

The 32-year-old had been offered a two-year contract extension in a player/coach role with Nottingham in 2020 while there were a number of options in France if he chose to play on. His decision to stop was multi-layered, a life post rugby at its core.

He bought a house in the English city, got married to Lesley and is now a UK sales executive with O’Neills, a serendipitous return to his family’s GAA roots.

The Covid-19 pandemic instigated a financial crash in English rugby’s second tier with the RFU cutting funding drastically to clubs whose income until recently had evaporated in the absence of matches and crowds. Playing rosters were trimmed, many of the clubs going down the semi-professional route and players looked to augment salaries by coaching or teaching.

Terminate

Job security could be tenuous. Even before Covid-19, salaries in the Championship were modest -relatively speaking - and usually contained a clause whereby a club had the option to terminate the contract of a player who was injured for more than 12 weeks.

Scanlon’s story encompasses the strata of playing at home and abroad, providing an insight into, and delving beneath, the catchall term, professional rugby player. An accomplished underage Gaelic footballer and hurler with Limerick he played Munster Schools and Ireland under-20s and while studying at UCC secured a training contract with Munster, upgraded to development and senior in subsequent seasons.

Scanlon scores a try against London Irish in a 2011 pre-season friendly. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Scanlon scores a try against London Irish in a 2011 pre-season friendly. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

On December 26th, 2011 Scanlon made a try scoring Munster debut against Connacht at Thomond Park in front of 20,000 supporters, the majority present to bid farewell to John Hayes in his final game for the province.

Remarkably this would be his only competitive game for Munster despite winning the approbation of successive Munster coaches Tony McGahan and Rob Penney. Injury, a herniated L5 disc that kept him sidelined for seven months, proved to be a catalyst for a move to England; that and the fact that “Munster was stacked with back three players,” he explained.

“Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Doug Howlett, Denis Hurley, Johne Murphy, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley was playing 15 and you had myself, Scott Deasy, Danny Barnes, 10 back three players.”

There were a number of offers from England and he chose Rotherham, a progressive club with a history as a feeder for Premiership teams. He said: “In your head you are thinking one or two good seasons and I’ll either come back to Ireland or I’ll move on to the Premiership. That was my goal.

“Financially it would probably have been the equivalent to a development contract (€20,000-€30,000) in Munster, the higher end. It was a pay cut from my full contract with Munster but not a massive pay cut. They didn’t offer me accommodation but they have a community fund so you could do coaching on the side.

“They work in a lot of schools so you could earn on days off, coach or help disadvantaged kids with reading and maths lessons. They were well connected in the community so you could increase your income. They sold that quite strongly. That was a way of earning another £5,000 or £6,000.”

Camaraderie

Under the guidance of current Wasps head coach Lee Blackett, Rotherham made the playoffs in Scanlon’s first season. It was a young team, great camaraderie, well coached and living with a couple of Irish boys, Michael Keating and Ali Birch helped to smooth the acclimatisation process.

“It was a great laugh, like being back in uni and having a great lifestyle and a load of really sound English lads. Everyone was around the same age. We resolved to enjoy ourselves; the wages weren’t great, the facilities weren’t great but we still had a nice lifestyle with like-minded people.”

Scanlon scores a try for Cork Constitution in 2011 despite the attention of Old Belvedere’s Andy Dunne. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Scanlon scores a try for Cork Constitution in 2011 despite the attention of Old Belvedere’s Andy Dunne. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Outside of a couple of well-resourced clubs, financial volatility hovered in the background for the remainder reliant on English RFU funding, gate receipts and in some cases a wealthy backer. Scanlon explained that the uncertainty built resilience, reinforcing the need to impress on a weekly basis to produce a body of work that might be attractive to future employers.

There was an AIL feel to the club, players and supporters mingling in the clubhouse after matches; easy conversations over a pint. Newcastle, Bristol and London Irish expressed an interest with Scanlon travelling to meet the then CEO of the Exiles, Bob Casey but an agreement to move fell through because of circumstances surrounding another player.

After a brief playing hiatus at Doncaster - where he got his level three badge and began coaching Dronfield club in England’s sixth division, which he continues to do to this day to earn a few extra bob - he moved to Nottingham.

Supplementary income was important and that related to performance clauses in a contract. He explained: “Win bonuses would be £100 or £200 depending on what kind of contract you had and then again depending on contract, if you played 15, 20 or 25 games there would be a lump sum as well; £1,000 to £2,500, it would go up incrementally. That was Nottingham, other clubs were straight salary.”

Stepping stone

So would he recommend the English Championship to young Irish players? “Pre-Covid, I would have said absolutely, the number of Irish players who have gone on to play in the Premiership or succeeded back in Ireland is (notable); it is a great stepping stone to trying to make it.

“If you are coming for the money it’s not the place to be. You can manage and you can supplement your salary with coaching and grind out a career. It worked out for me. Becoming a key player for a club is reflected in the salary.

“As you get older the financial aspect becomes more important. On the playing side young fellas need game time. If you are someone who isn’t getting that chance (in Ireland), it is a great opportunity and also an avenue to go to France because you are playing rugby regularly.

“The Irish lads on the fringes back home mightn’t get as much rugby so are less appealing to French clubs. It is a stepping stone. The Championship mightn’t recover for a couple of years and it depends on what club you are going to.”

His rugby career had been chock-full of positive experiences, on and off the pitch. He had the courage to invest in and back his talent outside the conventional route.

The Nottingham supporters’ player of the year in his last full season (2019-2020) and also scoring the Championship’s try of the year, he closed the door on professional rugby in upbeat fashion, something that may have subconsciously smoothing over any wrinkles of uncertainty.

Scanlon chose the moment to step away from professional rugby, a luxury less commonplace than the alternative, a conclusion enforced by injury or opinion. He enjoyed his journey as a professional rugby player, a road less travelled in a conventional sense, but it made all the difference.

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