'Be who you want to be, and give everything to the jersey' - The rise of Munster's new breed
"It's a different part of the country down there, like!"
Fineen Wycherley has been keeping it Cork for the past three months and has settled back into the relaxed way of things in the West of the West.
Fineen and Josh, his younger brother, packed up their Munster gear, back in March, and headed home to spend the lockdown period of this Covid-19 pandemic with their family. Catherine and Florence Wycherley have seven children and even with one son over in Australia the family abode was as crowded as it has been in years.
I tell Fineen about a friend of mine, Henry, from Skibbereen, who I first met in New Zealand well over a decade ago. Wherever he went or whomever he met, my friend would always introduce himself as 'Henry, from West Cork'.
"Ah yeah," Wycherley laughs, "people say you don’t just say you’re from Cork because you’re actually an hour and ten from the city. You’re actually on the other side and nearly closer to the water. You’re nearly out in the middle of the ocean when you say you’re from West Cork.
"Everyone’s kind of like that… we are proud. We’re a proud part of the country, and I think we might get a hard doing sometimes, down there, but it’s a lovely part of the country, where we live. I’ve especially appreciated, over the last couple of weeks how actually nice it is to be down there.
"And people are so friendly and so nice. Sometimes when you’re in the city environment, you don’t have a local kind of feel to it, or something like that. When you’re in the countryside, everyone sort of knows you and knows your business. It’s funny in a way that they know everything about you but it’s nice in a way, to have the banter and have the craic."
Florence Wycherley is originally from Skibbereen but he moved to Bantry when he met Catherine and started playing for the local rugby club.
"He couldn’t understand how there was no underage or no younger lads playing," says Fineen. "And we have a big family so he wanted to make sure at least one of us would be playing rugby in some sort of form!
"So he set up the local underage club with a couple more fellas. It was him, Phillip Walters, Eugene McCarthy and a few others... A few of them had younger sons and they all came together and they said, look we’ll try and set up the underage for Bantry and that’s how it started. And Jason started playing, and Gary and Nathan. And by the time I got older, then, it was bigger and it grew over time.
"They were the main coaches at the time – those three or four lads – and all those fellas had younger sons. It was enjoyable for them to see their lads playing rugby, as well, but they were very focused on trying to build Bantry and trying to get them going at underage."
The Wycherleys were Munster-mad and they decamped to the Millennium Stadium in 2006 and 2008 for the Heineken Cup final victories. The festive inter-pros against Leinster would find them wedged in together at Thomond Park. Florence would rave about Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell so young Fineen followed suit. Lining out for Bantry Bay RFC, he targeted the No.4 jersey and it was soon his.
Like most sports-mad youngsters, Wycherley was not confined to one sporting code. He tried his hand at most things - getting lots out of GAA - but found himself following in the stud-marks of his older brothers.
Getting called into the Munster U17 squad was all the nudge he needed and rugby it was. His mother would be spared some of the taxi-ing around Munster for games and an opportunity eventually arose, as he was finishing up transition year, to take a boarding spot in Cistercian College, up on the Offaly/Tipperary border. At the age of 16, he would leave Ardscoil Phobail, his old school, and travel 230 kilometres up to Mountheaton in Roscrea.
"Of course I was nervous," he admits, "and for the first five or six months I didn't really like it. The home-cooked meals and being with your family made it a lot easier to get through the day, and get through school."
He eventually did settle into life at Cistercian and says the bond he had with some of his friends and teammates up there was akin to "brotherhood".
What helped, too, was being part of a crack Cistercian First XV. While he was in fifth year, Wycherley was part of a Leinster Senior Schools Cup-winning team. Belvedere avenged that 2015 loss when Wycherley was in his final year but, all told, it was a successful board.
Wycherley was concerned that missing out on the inter-provincial games that Munster's Under 18s played, back in 2015, might have hindered him so there was a sense of relief when he made the U19 squad. He won the inter-pro title with that U19 squad and even made an outing with Munster 'A'.
Life picked up pace at some clip in 2017 when Wycherley made his British & Irish Cup debut in January and, two months later, his senior debut against Cardiff Blues.
"It was around the [U20] Six Nations that year," the lock recalls. "A few lads, around that time, had knocks and as we were preparing to play France, there was talk that I might be pulled into the senior squad to give a hand.
"I was pulled along and about 30 or 40 minutes before the game they said, 'Dave Foley is sick so you're actually going to be on the bench against Scarlets'. Everyone had found out I was in the squad and a load of Bantry people came up, but we ended up losing that game and I sat on the bench for the whole thing!
"I couple of weeks later, I was brought along as 24th man and, a couple of hours before the game, one of the lads who was carrying a knock was pulled out. I was put on the bench, got 15 minutes and was delighted with it... because I was so young, everyone was pulling behind me and they were very supportive, and reassuring. Telling me, 'You'll get through it. You won't die, or anything!'"
Wycherley credits fellow lock Billy Holland with being a fully invested mentor and for helping his game no-end. "I never did the line-out call for my school or in the Munster underage teams, so coming into the senior squad was the first time I ever had to manage a line-out and put things in place.
"Fla [Jerry Flannery] had told me that if I started learning how to call the line-out, it would make me more selectable. Billy was very helpful with that - he took my for video sessions and showed me how to analyse different teams, how to talk to the lads going into the lineout - that has stood to me over the years. I'm hugely grateful for that."
Wycherley made two sub appearances in 2016/17 and four the following season, but a straight red card for dropping the shoulder when clearing a Glasgow player from a ruck stalled his momentum.
"Around that game," he says, "I probably don't have a whole pile of learning curves around it. I just think that, as a young player, you're a bit nervous and eager around the whole thing... Because I was so young, these things were kind of brushed aside and I definitely have learned from it and have become a better player off the back of it. I was very lucky to have lads around that would give you a pat on the back and get me to move on from it."
Last season saw Wycherley bed into the senior team. He made 16 appearances (10 starts) with seven of them coming at blindside. He played a full 80 minutes in the back-row against Ulster, in December 2018, but all the talk came a week later when he excelled there in a home win over Leinster and left his impression on Johnny Sexton.
03: Early warning for Johnny Sexton at Thomond Park.
The Munster fans aren't happy, but the 'correct call' says Stephen Ferris.
LIVE now on eir sport 1! #MUNvLEI #GuinnessPRO14 pic.twitter.com/EnrD3Tdk6Z
— eir Sport (@eirSport) December 29, 2018
"You grow up looking forward to these games and they're so built into your head, almost," says Wycherley.
"I went to a couple of games when I was younger and watched the big Leinster and Munster games in Thomond Park. All you want to do is play in them. I just tried to take my opportunity as best I could."
"It was a tackle [on Sexton] and I was happy with it," he adds, "and it's what you're supposed to do. Everyone just came in behind me, the crowd went a bit mad and there was a good buzz around it. But pretty quickly after, I was brought back down and there was a lineout 20 metres up the pitch that needed to be won. It was fairly forgotten about pretty quickly after."
2019/20 - albeit with the five-month break in play - has already seen Wycherley make 17 appearances and second row has been the primary focus.
Munster will be hoping to contest the Guinness PRO14 title in a shortened end to the season but the Champions Cup will have to wait until 2020/21, whatever that season looks like. The province failed to progress from Europe's 'Group of Death', back in January, but Johann van Graan did give their supporters a glimpse of the future in their final game against Ospreys, which resulted in a convincing 33-6 win.
"Myself and Calvin (Nash) both made our first starts," Wycherley notes. "Calv was on the wing that day. It was a great day for all of us, just to go out there an express ourselves, almost. To be who you want to be and give everything to the jersey. You know, you’re at home in Thomond Park, it’s your first start (in Europe). Craig Casey came off the bench; played an exceptional game.
"There was such a nice buzz after the game. Of course, we’d been knocked out of Europe and it was disappointing but, at the same time, we didn’t go down and we didn’t lose the game. We didn’t give up early and just play all our young players and end up losing the game, and not giving everything. We all gave everything for the game and still wanted to put on a big performance for our home crowd, to see out Europe. I think we did, and we did it exceptionally well."
Van Graan has astutely acquired Roman Salonoa (from Leinster) and Matt Gallagher (Saracens) to go with the capture of World Cup winners Damian De Allende and RG Snyman. While Snyman will now be competing for one of the two second row berths, Wycherley is excited at the prospect of linking up with the new arrivals.
"All those lads are coming from unbelievable teams, and they’re all unbelievable players so we’re welcoming them with open arms. We’re looking forward to having those lads and seeing how influential they can be, in the squad, and how influential they can be on the big days.
"I think those players will add so much to the squad and there’ll be learnings from the younger people to see and learn from those guys, and pick up little knicks, knacks and tricks. See how they play the game and get through big games. I think it’ll be hugely influential. Their performances and their help towards us will help us succeed next season."
Allied to those new arrivals, the re-focus on Cork talent is paying off for Munster. The likes of Harry O'Riordan, John Hodnett, Sean French, Jonathan Wren and Jack Crowley are top prospects while the Wycherley brothers (Fineen and Josh), Coombes brothers (Liam and Gavin), Shane Daly, Billy Holland, Darren Sweetnam, Liam O'Connor, Kevin O'Byrne, James Cronin, Jack O'Sullivan and Alex McHenry are all in the senior squad.
"Munster has had a lot of unbelievable Munster players coming through, over the years. At that time, there was a massive drive for it in Limerick. There is is a drive, of course, and plenty of players coming through but there is a change in the rugby environment down in Cork.
"There are a lot of lads coming out of those Cork city schools and then you have the likes of Bandon Grammar. Jack Crowley, and the likes, are coming out of there. There's a big of a change in mind-set. It's not totally GAA... the young people are open-minded and the parents are drip-feeding them different sports.
"Compared to when I was growing up, it was very much GAA and if you weren't GAA-orientated it was frowned upon a small bit. My dad was big into rugby so that was my excuse - 'My dad's into rugby so I have to go to rugby training!'"
"I said I’d try and change it up and give people inspiration to do something different"
Proud, proud, PROUD(!) West Cork native and Munster star @FineenWych on a part of the world he loves so much and why he's hitting the rowing machine in aid of @EnableIreland 🚣♂️ pic.twitter.com/NA1BYrPGH8
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) June 13, 2020
As well as linking up with the Munster senior squad, a big part of Wycherley's June will involve him jumping on the rowing machine in aid of the charity Enable Ireland.
The 'Wheel 100 Challenge' encourages participants to wheel 100 times - in their own way - and raise vital funds for Enable Ireland disability services around the country.
"The challenge is 100 of anything over the month of June," Wycherley explains. "You have to register for it online – just check up there with Enable Ireland, on their site. Basically, they’re asking people to do 100k on a bike or 100 laps of your local GAA pitch, or 100 metres on a wheelchair, anything like that. Anything you can get your hands on with a wheel, will do.
"I’ve got a rowing machine at home, which I’m using. And it’s got the turning wheel with the rower, and there’s two wheels at the front, so I’ve just about got in with the rules! So, I’ll do 100k on that, over the next month, and I’ll hopefully be able to raise a good bit of funds for the charity and… it’s something I’m actually not great at, rowing, but I’ll give it a go. I did have a bike at home but I said I’d try and change it up and give people inspiration to do something different."
The charity is encouraging families, sports enthusiasts, cycle clubs and anyone with a set of wheels to take part in this digital fundraising challenge. A virtual ‘Wheel 100 Champions Wall’ for those who raise the most funds will be added to the Enable Ireland website www.enableireland.ie/wheel100.
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Ospreys and Wales legend James Hook joins Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble for the latest House of Rugby episode. Having retired last week, James looks back on his successful rugby career and talks about the switching to coaching, and writing children's books.