Two years after Leinster heartbreak, Cian Prendergast is Ireland's best young player
"It's just a special place, and you can really feel that when you play here."
It is Wednesday in Galway and I have come down from Kildare to, coincidentally, talk to two Kildare men making a home for themselves in the West of Ireland - Cian Prendergast and Diamuid Kilgallen.
After catching up with Munster fullback Patrick Campbell and Ulster scrumhalf Nathan Doak, it is great to get back on the M6 and down to The Sportsground. It is Connacht's day off, but several of their playing squad are on the premises. Jarrad Butler shows impeccable manners in the parking lot as we head in, and he heads for home.
The plan is to sit down with two of the province's best young talents for a look back on their early life, schools rugby, age-grade experiences, time with Ireland U20 and, more recently, their breakthroughs with Connacht and taste of the professional life.
Both Kilgallen and Prendergast are 22 and Lilywhites. Kilgallen hails from Eadestown, which has produced Tadhg Beirne, Rowan Osbourne and Jimmy O'Brien in recent years, despite being small enough to have neither a pub or shop to call its' own. Prendergast is from The Curragh and went to Ballysax Primary School before heading along to Newbridge College. Leinster hooker James Tracy was his forwards coach, there, for a couple of years and still sends supportive messages ahead of big games.
"I played a small bit of minis when I was about 10," Prendergast recalls of his early rugby outings. "I don't remember being too fond of it. I wasn't a fan of standing out and around in the cold. I wanted to play soccer. When I was younger, I wanted to play for Manchester United... I loved Robbie Keane and Roy Keane, as well. It could have been as simple as their last names being Keane. I was obsessed with getting the boots that Roy Keane had... I just had to get them.
"I played Gaelic football and did athletics, but didn't fully start with rugby until Newbridge. I wasn't that good at it until I was 15, and I hit a bit of a growth spurt. I fancied myself as a bit of an outhalf. I fancied myself as the next Johnny Sexton!"
As for that growth spurt? "I went from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-four in the space of a summer," says Prendergast.
'I wouldn't change my journey for anything'
While Diarmuid Kilgallen was identified from a long way out, by Connacht, Cian Prendergast had been hopeful of a Leinster career only to be given the bad news - there would be no academy place for him. There was hope, though.
"I got a phone call off Noel McNamara during lockdown, around April 2020. It was like, 'Listen, we don't have a place for you'. The world came crashing down around me, at that time. I didn't know what I was going to do.
"About 24, 36 hours later, I get a phone call from Eric Elwood [Connacht academy manager] and he was like, 'We'd like to offer you a place in the Connacht academy'. I'll be forever grateful for that, because it was a second chance for me. I remember having conversations with lads, at the time, who had got academy offers for Leinster. I was very jealous but, look, I wouldn't change my journey now for anything in the world."
Prendergast had made two Ireland U20 appearances in the Six Nations and would have made more had Covid-19 not interceded. Six months after that call from Elwood, the young back-row was making his senior debut against Edinburgh. Since then, life has hardly let up.
'I'm going to be playing against Munster'
Cian Prendergast's third and fourth outings for Connacht were in the Champions Cup, away to Racing and at home against Bristol. The games kept coming, including a home start against Edinburgh, but the match that stands out most for him was Munster away.
"We were playing them on a Friday," Prendergast recalls, "so the team was emailed out on a Monday evening... I was able to call my parents - 'Listen, I'm going to be playing against Munster, and I'm going to start'. They were just delighted for me. My mum gets very, very nervous. I think she was nearly going to throw up! Thinking about who I was going to play, how big they were, and all that!
"My brother was even more nervous, I think. I didn't get a chance to see them, all, that much during lockdown, but my dad was always there for me. He'd take a call off me when I wasn't picked, and I was frustrated. So it was nice to have a call with him when I was starting."
For that game, Prendergast would be starting with Conor Oliver and Abraham Palali'i against a Munster back row of Peter O'Mahony, Jack O'Donoghue and CJ Stander. The young forward, along with Niall Murray and Tom Daly, excelled in a 24-20 victory in Limerick. It was, as so often transpires when these two provinces meet, a game with a lot of bite.
"That always happens when we play Munster," he says. "I don't know why, but there always is a bit of push and shove. That happened earlier this season [at Thomond] and, on New Year, there was a bit of a barney at half-time, in The Sportsground. It's always feisty as the games are always so close. They're probably our closest rivals."
Two more starts followed for the Kildare native in The Rainbow Cup, meaning he played 10 times in his breakthrough season. This time out, Prendergast has played 21 matches, starting 20 of them at blindside. He finishes out the 2021/22 season in the No.8 jersey - possibly alluding to a similar positional shift on Ireland's summer tour.
Ireland tour 'would be a dream come true' - Cian Prendergast
Cian Prendergast has, by all intents and purposes, enjoyed a superb sophomore season. He got a senior contract at the end of last season and has impressed so much, in this campaign, that the Westerners offered him a three-year deal, announced earlier this week.
"There's a few things we need to get right, behind the scenes, but I do think there is something brewing here," he says. "And to be part of it would be incredible."
There was also the honour of getting the sole 'development player' call-up to Ireland's Six Nations squad.
"Everyone was very nice to me. That's the big thing Ireland have in their group - everyone is allowed be themselves and no-one has to keep to themselves. Everyone came up to me - lads like Peter O'Mahony and Josh van der Flier were coming over and offering me help - 'If you need this, come to me. If you want anyone to sit down with you, to go through stuff, just ask'.
"That was awesome. The lads were sitting down with me for nearly an hour and a half, going through stuff on the computer. It was so appreciated... [The coaches] were great, too. They give you a small bit of leeway at the start but then, once you're in, you have to understand it straight away."
Now that the Connacht season is wrapping, there are a clutch from the senior squad that will hope to get calls to tour with Ireland's extended squad for New Zealand. Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham should be locks. Jack Carty could travel, too, and possibly Dave Heffernan. If Andy Farrell wants to see if Prendergast can cut it in a white-hot environment, another Connacht inclusion could be coming.
"That would be a dream come true," says Prendergast. "I think if you asked any player in this country if they'd like to go on tour to New Zealand for three or four weeks, they'd bite your hand off. That would be an incredible experience. It would be awesome.
"If it happens, it happens. I'd like to think that I've done well this season and made progress, as a player. Look, I'm at peace with whatever happens as this season has been so great for me, already."
As if to drive that point home, the next time I see Cian Prendergast is up in Dublin, that Wednesday evening, at the Rugby Players Ireland awards ceremony.
"You've scrubbed up well," I joke as I pass under his giant shadow at the event. "You too," he kindly musters.
Not long after, voted for by his Irish rugby peers, Prendergast stands on-stage and is awarded Men's XV Young Player of the Year. It has been that kind of season. Somehow, beating established Ireland stars Michael Lowry and Dan Sheehan to that accolade feels completely natural.
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