Across The Laighin: A long way from Clare to here
May 5, 2021 11:51 am Marcus Ó Buachalla
‘Across The Laighin’ is the quarterly magazine published exclusively for the benefit of Official Members.
The second edition went live in March and over the coming weeks we will be giving Leinster Rugby supporters access to excerpts from some of the interviews and feature pieces.
In the first such piece, we sat down with Leinster Rugby Academy Manager Noel McNamara who spoke to us about his journey from a GAA and soccer stronghold in Clare to leading the Leinster Rugby Academy.
Noel spoke to ‘Across The Laighin’ about early efforts to set up a rugby team in O’Callaghan’s Mills, his early years teaching in Clongowes Wood College and his coaching journey along the way culminating in an Ireland U-20 Grand Slam.
How does an O’Callaghan’s Mills man, a Clare village steeped in GAA history and heritage, end up as the head of one of the most famous academies in European rugby?
“A good question!” laughs Noel McNamara before proceeding to not give much of an answer!
Because the reality is that his story, much like the stories of all the players that come under his tutelage in the Leinster Academy on a daily basis, has many twists and turns before finding its true path.
That’s not to say that sport was alien to a young McNamara, it’s just that it wasn’t ever rugby.
There was badminton on his mother Mary’s side who was very capable in her day, but on his father Denis’ side, he only had time for the farm and maybe taking in an All-Ireland final on the box on the first Sunday in September.
“My dad’s passion was working hard. My grandfather would have been involved with hurling in O’Callaghan’s Mills but not dad.
“His passion was his farm but he also worked a night shift in a local chipboard factory in Scariff. So he’d be home from that, milk the cows, get a few hours sleep, back at it and milk the cows again and that was his cycle.
“We laugh about it now but dad was addicted to hardship! My mum worked very hard too with us four growing up and she was a nurse as well, a midwife in the Regional Hospital in Limerick.
“As I look back now that work ethic was very strong in the family because we saw how hard our folks worked and that rubbed off on us I suppose.”
The ‘us’ in question was Noel and his three sisters, Róisín, Edel and Joanne, and three of the four took inspiration from their mother.
“Róisín is a a doctor in Temple Street, Joanne is an ICU nurse in the Mater and Edel is an oncology nurse. They all followed in mum’s steps really whereas I was drawn to and did Law after leaving school.
“Law and European Studies and I suppose at the start of the Celtic Tiger I thought it was a good decision.”
If you like rugby, stand over there…
Like a lot of kids growing up in O’Callaghan’s Mills it was down to the local GAA club, but also soccer, then a bit of tennis, golf and some badminton.
“Soccer was my love and my passion.
“So I was playing with Kilkishen Celtic first and then Tulla United as I got older and I would have played GAA with O’Callaghan’s Mills.”
Rugby may not have featured but it’s not as if he never tried.
In fact, they very nearly got a team off the ground at one point only to run into logistical issues.
“A trial game was played at U-13 I think, almost to test the waters as to who liked it and who would be interested in getting this off the ground.
“We played it and I enjoyed it and then at the end it was a case of stand over here who would be keen to keep it up and stand over here who would be happy to leave well enough alone.
“I stood over on one side with Brian Donnellan. Brian would later hurl for Clare and his brother Pat would actually captain Clare to an All-Ireland in 2013. But unfortunately for us every one of the other lads stood on the other side!
“That was that. No more rugby!”
The true calling…
He didn’t last the second year studying Law and European Studies before taking the decision that it wasn’t for him.
A big decision when nearly halfway through your degree but it just didn’t feel right.
So off he went to the States and sure enough he came back with the necessary finance to get him to the University of Limerick (UL) where he studied PE and Maths.
And with that he had taken his first formal steps to finding his purpose.
It is one thing though to be a good teacher in a field that you have trained in.
It is quite another to be a good coach in a sport that you have barely ever played? Unless we count the trial game, of course.
“I was very lucky.
“All the way along I was involved with very good people, excellent mentors that took me under their wing, and in some ways I learned more in some of those early years with those really good people than I would have in years if I had been with others. People who were very generous with their time but also not afraid to challenge me and to be critical where that was needed.
“Really good people like Denis Hooper in Glenstal Abbey and the late PJ Smyth in UL.”
Glenstal Abbey was his first position in his final year in college.
“Once I went down that path, of teaching, I loved it.
“PJ Smyth who is no longer with us unfortunately but what a mentor and a lecturer he was for those years in UL. He would have challenged me in how I would have thought about sport and the psychology of sport.
“I did my final year project with PJ so I worked very closely with him. An expert around psychology but also skill acquisition and would have been very well-regarded and even considered to be well ahead of his time in terms of his thinking and his approach.
“I was lucky that someone from Glenstal rang UL one day and said they were looking for a PE and a rugby coach and actually also a geography teacher.
“Now my primary degree was PE and maths but here I was heading to Glenstal without even an atlas to my name! It’s probably a massive insult to all in my class that studied geography that he went with me but anyway…!”
Off he went to Glenstal and for the formative steps as a teacher but also as a rugby coach.
“I taught geography and also PE and my first rugby gig was coaching their U-14s and I really enjoyed it and the rugby in particular.
“I was lucky too because it was a good young group of players. Lads like Duncan Casey were there and he was the number seven. Just a really good place to work for a few months and coach and really to learn.”
The easiest thing for McNamara to do would be to stay in Glenstal or to look for a job closer to home perhaps, but then PJ in UL intervened again.
“Clongowes Wood College sent a delegation down to UL to look for a PE teacher, a maths teacher and a rugby coach and the person that met them thankfully again for me was PJ!”
Was there no position for a geography teacher this time?
“No! Thankfully not! So PJ showed them around UL and I was in that group that met them and I got offered a job in Clongowes off the back of that.”
Eastern adventures… and early days…
He loved his 11 years in Kildare and in Clongowes.
“I lived in the school at first, on campus and I coached the U-13s and again I was lucky, similar to my time in Glenstal, because it was a really good group of players.
“Gerry Murphy – who again was someone who was invaluable to me as a mentor over the years – he has a great phrase and that is ‘Show me a good coach and I’ll show you good players’ and here again was the proof of it.
“In the squad at that time I had Jordan Coghlan, Conor Gilsenan, Max McFarland, David Quirke… so really, really talented lads.
“It wasn’t all me either I should say as I also worked with David Fagan who now runs a hotel in Naas and a bar in Clane, but he was working in Clongowes at the time so we coached that team together.
“I would have learned a lot together in that year with David but the following year he left so I was left to coach the U-13s again and this time I had Damien Reidy the former Limerick footballer with me.
“On that team we had Ed Byrne, Bryan Byrne, Peadar Timmins, Gordon Frayne and a few others, so we went through the year undefeated for the first time ever in Clongowes history.
“We had some great moments that year.”
Clongowes weren’t shy in offering opportunities to him further up the food chain to experience more and when an opening finally came up with the senior team, Clongowes knew they didn’t have to look far for a replacement.
“At the end of that year with the U-13s, Adam Lewis, another remarkable coach in Clongowes at the time, was coaching the seniors.
“He was Australian and asked me to get involved for the following year so it really was a short apprenticeship with the young lads for me before I suppose moving on to dealing with much older players.
“I honestly learned more in that year with Adam than I could ever have dreamed of. A really good year but before I knew it he was taking up a role in Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview in Sydney before eventually becoming Headmaster in Boston College.
“I took over the senior team then but again I was very fortunate to have some really fantastic players around me not just then but all through those early years that helped me greatly.
“Then people like Michael Shiel and Noel Murray, people and coaches who were very generous with their time and gave me a superb grounding in the game.
“Leonard Moloney, a great Headmaster in Clongowes, wasn’t afraid to have tough conversations with me when they were needed to make sure I didn’t get ahead of myself… and those chats were regular!”
McNamara is a self-confessed student of the game and of coaching and reads whatever he can. He frequently uses quotes and phraseology from other coaches, other sports and other disciplines also.
NFL, NBA, soccer, you name it, he’s probably read it and is constantly looking to learn from other environments in whatever way he can.
As recently as August 2018, he uprooted his young family to take up a three-month sabbatical with North Harbour a team that plays in the New Zealand Mitre 10 Cup.
“It is definitely something that I have tried to continue throughout my career.
“For example, my wife Sinéad would have been friendly with someone who got me in touch with Les Kiss when he first came to Ireland. I spent a bit of time with him and the Irish team and around that environment and trying to take in as much as I could and Les was brilliant.
“I’ve already mentioned Gerry Murphy and the lessons I learned from him over the years and the lessons I still learn from him to this day. He’s supportive but also continues to challenge me.”
Success? Define success…
In his eight years in Clongowes Wood College they reached the Leinster Rugby Schools Senior Cup Final on four occasions, winning two.
As he looks back now on his time with Clongowes Wood College he remembers his time there for far more than the two trophies they brought with them back to Kildare.
“John Wooden, the famous basketball coach has a great quote: ‘Success is the satisfaction in knowing that you achieved what you are capable of achieving.’
“If you have a group that is capable of going to win, then go and win the cup but it’s not about winning that cup and it can’t be for all teams.
“I think it’s more about understanding the ‘why’? Why do we play rugby?
“We didn’t play rugby to win the cup.
“In 2009, I remember we lost to Terenure in the quarter-final and I received two messages from Peter Sexton and from Michael Shiel.
“And they both carried the same message and it was a simple one. Michael put it to me that there was ever only one morning after a game where he had the cup won and that was in 1978. And he said that this fact didn’t make all the other mornings a failure.
“Peter actually sent me a post card from the Vatican where he had been granted an audience with the Pope and again it was a simple message that our purpose was higher than merely winning.
“Understanding what success actually looks like, unearthing potential in people, speaking about values. It is too easy to get caught up in the winning or the losing.”
McNamara still meets the people. The teenagers and young adults who have now become men.
Some of them are still with him in UCD as Leinster Rugby players but the vast majority of them are former students and former players of his making their way in the world.
“We regularly meet up and it’s never ‘Do you remember that win or that moment in the final?’
“It is usually something in training, or an incident on a tour or something somebody did. Those are the memories that bind us.
“It’s like the time we were on our way to play a game in Cork and our bus broke down on Goul River. One of my favourite memories! Four hours stuck on a bus on a bridge when we should have been halfway to Cork! Brilliant craic!”
To anyone else it is maybe a footnote to their story but to the young men and the coaches and teachers that shared that experience, a memory that lives with them fondly to this day.
Because for McNamara it’s about so much more. It has to be.
“The cup gets given back. The medals get stuck in a drawer somewhere. It’s far more significant to see lads grow.
“Seeing Ed Byrne go on to play for Ireland, Will Connors the same but also look at off the pitch.
“Good at music? Then be the best you can be at that. Art? The same. Academics? Same.
“I took just as much pride in the lads going on and doing brilliantly in the Leaving Cert and going to college and getting jobs as I did in them succeeding on the pitch for Clongowes.
“There was a guy who had dyslexia who achieved brilliantly in the Leaving Cert and got 400 points and all the while training hard for the team and winning a cup medal. What an achievement for that young man to apply himself so diligently and to perform at that level across different spheres.”
A career in blue… and in green… but still all about the people
He was appointed by Leinster Rugby as an Elite Player Development Officer in 2016 and in 2018, the IRFU appointed him as head coach of the Ireland U-20 side for that year’s Six Nations.
But when Peter Smyth left his role as Academy Manager at Leinster Rugby in 2019 to join the IRFU as the Head of Rugby Development, again Leinster Rugby, like Clongowes before, knew they had the right man at their disposal.
And while the lessons of Wooden and Co are not forgotten, McNamara keeps coming back to lessons he learned from Messrs Hooper, Smyth, Moloney, Murphy et al early on in UL, in Glenstal and then in Clongowes Wood College.
“It’s the same to this day as it was then. We don’t deal with rugby players, we deal with people.
“You can’t separate the person from the player. We work with people and we work hard with people to help them realise their potential and we are incredibly lucky at the moment that we have people at the top of the organisation, specifically Leo (Cullen), who recognise that fact.
“The importance of setting young people up to succeed. I love that element to the role; it motivates me and long may that continue.”
The people that he now deals directly with are 18 young athletes from year one Academy to year three Academy, all of them hoping to break into the Senior ranks of 47 players that sit just above them in the Leinster Rugby hierarchy.
“Integration with the senior team is a huge plus and it’s not about showing players up, it’s about showing them the way and I think that is something we do well but it’s still a work in progress but also a safe environment.
“You have to address the pressure of winning games at a weekend but aligned to that an environment where it is safe to fail, because they will fail. They are only young men starting out on their journey.
“Then the college work, their relationships, their mental health, all of these different components that make up these people and we work very hard at maintaining that balance and again helping them in as much as we can to reach their potential.”
The players are all of Leinster…
As the man charged with managing the Leinster Rugby Academy what does he make of the constant debate around the Leinster Rugby schools system or more to the point, that more could be done for the club game?
While he has some sympathy for the argument, he also feels that there is a fundamental aspect that is missed in the discourse.
“People get confused in my opinion. And yes, the schools’ game and its profile is a step above what the club game receives but that gap is narrowing all the time.
“The reality though is that the introduction to rugby piece is through the club game and almost everybody will have that first introduction to rugby through their club, through minis, through underage rugby, through the Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby School of Excellence or the Summer Camps who do excellent work. And it’s all done in our clubs in a safe and enjoyable and fun way.
“The clubs’ pathway is growing and we take massive pride in seeing these lads progress. Look at the two of the most recent Leinster Rugby debuts, Jamie Osborne and Marcus Hanan.
“Marcus who played his rugby with Clane growing up and is playing his rugby now with Old Belvedere and then Jamie who has played all of his rugby in Naas.
“Right now, 20 per cent of the Leinster Academy has come through that pathway and that gives an indication of just how important it is to us. There are a lot of people working very hard in ensuring those players make it to the very top.
“It’s such a long-term investment from U-13 and U-14 and a lot of the values that we spoke about previously apply here too. It’s brilliant when that comes together in a Jamie or a Marcus making a debut but the club game isn’t just about that.
“The club game is the life blood and the oxygen of the game in Leinster and it’s important that we continue to recognise and celebrate that.
“For our Academy to flourish that pathway has to be as good as it can possibly be for as long as possible but also that it is as wide as it can possibly be.
“And if the players – school or club players for that matter – don’t make the Academy, that is fine too but it’s important that they get involved with their club as a player, as a coach, as a volunteer, as a referee.”
It is clear that he is deeply invested in these players just as he was with the lads in Clongowes before and the pride that he feels in their progress again shines through.
But also his pride in a pathway that continues to deliver for Leinster Rugby.
“The competitive side of me wants to see the players in our Academy win be that with Leinster ‘A’ or the Irish U-20s or of course with Leinster Rugby.
“But as I said before the other side is equally as important and the overall story of the person so David Hawkshaw making his debut after his injury, or a young lad like Jamie making his debut or someone like a Greg McGrath coming from the AIL with Lansdowne and making his debut.
“The journey is different for them all.
“But these players are all of Leinster and I hope that people involved in those journeys take pride in all those lads because they all deserve it. They’ve all played their part.”
Learning to win is tough…
He finished his role with the Ireland U-20s in 2020, with a Grand Slam to his name from the 2019 campaign, and while Covid-19 impacted on a promising and unbeaten 2020, like his time with Glenstal or with Clongowes, he very much enjoyed the experience as a whole even if at times things didn’t go to plan on the field or on the scoreboard.
“That first year was a challenge but again I look at the group and what they have achieved since then.
“Caelan Doris, Rónan Kelleher, Tom O’Toole and their involvement with Ireland. Other players now playing regularly with their provinces also at PRO14 level.
“Did the results go our way (in 2018)? No, but again I go back to what your definition of success is and there were lots of parts of that year that were a success and at that level, at U-20 level, you are learning to win. That’s what that phase in their developmental cycle should be about.
“The ambition is of course to win, but it’s not the purpose. And sometimes learning to win is tough and involves losing and going through tough challenging times and the reality with player development is that it is not linear and you see that with a lot of players and the path they take.
“It’s messy. And the harsh reality for some is that it won’t work out but what you want is that their experience nonetheless is a positive one. So even if it doesn’t work out that they still love the game, they still want to be involved, to play club rugby, to get involved.”
Hero… to Zero…
As the Academy Manager of Leinster Rugby he can be the hero but he can also be the zero to a lot of these young men and while the decision isn’t solely his, he is often times the man charged with delivering the bad news.
When it is good news, it can be the start of a brilliant journey in Leinster blue but if it’s not, where does that leave a young man who he has maybe watched and coached over a number of years?
The harsh reality of professional sport.
“I would like to think that success is never final and failure is never fatal.
“The reality is that it is but a moment in time. Of course, it’s a moment in time when things haven’t fallen your way but we have also seen that happen to others and they regather and they go again and they come again and take the opportunity later in life.
“The opportunity comes their way later sometimes when they are better prepared to take it and to succeed at it.”
There are plenty of examples in recent times of players coming in from the cold.
Barry Daly, Rowan Osborne, Greg McGrath to name but a few.
How does he deal with those conversations though?
“Honesty is crucial in those moments. Transparency is really important.
“And if we have gone about it in the right way, what they will have experienced over their years in our Academy programme will outweigh the disappointment.
“If we haven’t gone about it the right way and if we have neglected the person and we have neglected the education piece, then shame on us really.
“The reality is that if players make it, then we share that success. But similarly, for players that don’t make it, then that is on us too and we need to look at those journeys and see could we have done more, could we have been better in helping the next fella along.”
A life after Leinster Rugby…
“I love watching Bristol play and seeing Bryan Byrne go well. Look at Cian Prendergast who has gone to Connacht, Jack Aungier and so on and so on.
“We would love for everyone to fulfil their potential with Leinster but if it’s not to be then go for it.
“Go. Maximise your potential and we wish them well and we still take pride in their achievements and we want them to be as successful as possible.
“Look at Peadar Timmins who chose a different route altogether and is now in Notre Dame in the States on their Esteem Graduate Programme. What a brilliant story.
“Or look at Barry Daly in Boston College doing a Masters.
“You would hope that those lads can apply many of the things that they have learned here to those new roles that they have.
“The jersey on your back may change but you don’t stop being of Leinster.”
From Clare to here…
As our conversation comes to a close, it is striking that his energy throughout never dipped.
Whether talking about his roots back in O’Callaghan’s Mills, or in school in Tulla, or in the University of Limerick, or in Clongowes, or in UCD, or with Ireland or with Leinster, every step recounted with a passion and a clarity of thought.
And all with a smile and a twinkle in the eye.
It’s fair to say the 19-year-old Noel McNamara made a very wise decision when he stepped away from his legal studies.
He has found his calling, his vocation, his purpose.
“I love coaching and being on the pitch is probably where I am most comfortable but I still get a great buzz out of working with people and young people. It’s energizing and it’s challenging and it takes you in so many different directions
“If someone asked me what the role was when I started with Leinster Rugby as the Academy Manager, I might have struggled to give a straight answer but in the role now a few years, I realise that it is very multi-faceted and I think that is the reality of dealing with people and trying to unearth potential in people.
“It is never straight forward.”
Nor has it been for McNamara.
From GAA country, from Clare and from O’Callaghan’s Mills, he has found his path.
He may not have been at the start, but he is now most definitely of Leinster.