One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time

As the Rugby World Cup takes centre stage in France and captivates the imaginations of millions worldwide, it’s understandable that young players in the game will be blinded by the lights. Yet the reality is that while the tournament represents the pinnacle of a playing career, only a fortunate few will ever get to experience their sport on its biggest stage.

Jake Flannery’s ambitions are undeniable. Recognition at international level and lining out at a Rugby World Cup holds certain prominence on his lengthy to-do list. However, the young Tipperary out-half takes a pragmatic approach to his life. His ultimate ambition therefore sits as a lofty goal propped up by the building blocks of his master plan.

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Steve Haag

While an Emerging Ireland tour and a new three-year contract at Ulster Rugby ensure his rugby objectives remain on track, many would be surprised to learn that academia and charity have been given their due standing in Flannery’s grand strategy.

Following the Bansha native’s recent graduation from the University of Limerick, the latest phase of his construct has drawn to a close. With maximum points (625) in his Leaving Cert, a Naughton Scholarship and an U20 Grand Slam already in his back pocket, Flannery is now a qualified Chemical Engineer.

“When I left school [Rockwell College], I was by no means assured of a place in the [Munster] academy,” Flannery tells us. “In hindsight, that lack of clarity probably gave me a bit of freedom in making the decision to do chemical engineering. Make no question, a place in the academy remained the priority but I ended up doing what I wanted to do in college because I was good at maths and chemistry, and not because it was a course that fitted with the demands of rugby.

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

“It was when my game began to progress that I realised I had a bit of a challenge on my hands. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a temptation to quit at that point. I’d seen a few lads drop out or change course on the basis that they wanted to give rugby their all, so it was only natural that I began to wonder whether I’d be seen as a less committed player if I didn’t do the same.”

It’s a crossroads many young sportspeople come to. Understandably, aspiring athletes walking the tightrope of sporting expectation will make decisions based on external pressures. In so doing, they can overlook the support systems that are in in place to enable them in realising their full potential both on and off the field.    

To this end, Rugby Players Ireland are primed to meet young rugby players at the intersection of personal growth and sporting ambition. Incidentally, 58% of the players’ association’s membership are engaged in or have completed third-level education – above the national average despite their extensive rugby commitments.

“I came to the conclusion that it would be a complete waste if I neglected that side of my life,” Flannery admits. “Once I sat down to map it all out, I realised that there are enough hours in the day. It’s a practice I still do every Sunday evening. I plan out my week so I can maximise the time available to me for study, recovery or extra skills work. I’ve found ticking everything off as I go through the week gives me a lovely sense of productivity.

“Obviously, continuing with my degree was going to take a bit more than time management to get by. I needed the support of both the coaching set-up at Munster and my lecturers in UL but as a young lad I was daunted by the prospect of going to both sides and effectively tell them all the things I wouldn’t be able to do for them.

“This was where Marcus Horan (Rugby Players Ireland’s Player Development Manager for Munster Rugby) stepped in to help them see all that I could achieve. We also formed a great relationship with my course director, Professor Witold Kwapiński. Throughout my time in UL, both Marcus and Witold have been so reassuring. I remember meeting Marcus on my first week at Munster and he just said, ‘use me – I’m here for you!’ His knowledge of Munster allied to his experience of dealing with UL paved the way to my qualification.”

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Positive relationships ultimately played into Flannery’s hands when an opportunity to sign for Ulster Rugby transpired in 2022. It was a move that was important to his rugby development but there were other matters that needed addressing. Throughout his young career Flannery had worked hard to ensure that his books never impeded his commitment to the game. Moving to Belfast inevitably put his future at UL into question. 

“I think the biggest resource that helped me through was my communication, both with my lecturers and my classmates. Thankfully everyone was very receptive and willing to help. From there everything went online and I spent a lot of time emailing, zooming and doing what I could to put myself out there.

“I’d see a class list posted and I’d cold call someone on the roll to ask if I could do a project with them. I met some of my project partners for the first time when I landed back down to UL to present on a design we had spent the past few months building together!

“Thanks to these experiences, I’ve learned to place a lot of emphasis on networks and managing relationships. Whether you’re a rugby player or not, your network will help you to get by. It’s something I actively worked on since I’ve moved to Belfast too. I wanted to immerse myself in the community. Thanks to Mike McKeever I linked up with Ballyclare High School as a coach, while Pamela Gilpin introduced me to MenCap NI.”

MenCap NI, which supports thousands of people with a learning disability to live their lives the way they choose, has become a focal point of Flannery’s societal contributions. His motivation to get involved is driven by the influence of his late uncle Mark who had Down’s syndrome.

“When I mentioned Mark and my willingness to work with people with learning difficulties, Pam immediately arranged for a meeting with MenCapNI. At first I had no set role so I started to call by on a Monday for a few hours to chat and play games, and it has grown from there. Through my experience with my uncle, I know how much it means to families to see their kids socialising and having fun.

“I just feel it’s important that if you want to feel part of a community, you have to play a meaningful role in it. On top of getting closer to the lads at Ulster, getting involved in others things has also made Belfast feel so much more homely. There’s so much more to me than what I can do on a rugby field and it’s on me to give back to everyone here for welcoming me in.”

Coming into his second season in Ulster, Flannery has taken plenty of positives from a long run into the campaign. 2022-23 was somewhat fractured owing to a few niggling injuries and a period of absence owing to his involvement with Emerging Ireland. A long-term contract extension in addition to the departure of Ian Madigan has now opened more doors of possibility ahead of the new term.  

Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tom Maher

“Funnily enough, Mads has probably been one of the best mentors I’ve ever had,” Flannery acknowledges. “People sometimes think you can’t trust the guys who are after the same position, but he had a genuine sense of care for me. He was very keen to ensure that I was developing myself away from the game and always stressed the importance of investing in myself.

“Of course, as an out-half I enjoyed being able to pick his brain on a daily basis too and even though we were competing for the same spot, he was always happy to share some tips. I’ll miss his advice, but we’ll stay in contact as he’s promised to line up a few work placements through his network!

“This season is about making a real contribution to UIster,” he continues. “I’ve really enjoyed pre-season. I’ve come to really understand what is expected of me and what I can demand of others too. I feel like I’ve put myself in a strong position to break into the matchday 23 on a regular basis and push for a starting spot.

“Every player will have their grand ambitions, but I think all the stuff you dream and think about will look after itself once you keep turning up and putting the work in. It’s about getting better every day and doing everything in my control to improve. That’s my goal. Day by day. Bit by bit.”   

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