Sean O'Brien's parting gesture won't soon be forgotten by Scott Penny
"It was pretty intense."
For Scott Penny there was a brief moment, just after he was smashed out the ruck, of awe before he shook that clear and regained his feet. Back at it again.
It was late October, 2018, and Leinster were preparing for a Guinness PRO14 away game with Treviso. Fresh from Champions Cup fixtures and heading towards the international window, Leinster were fielding a strong XV for the game at Stadio di Mongio.
Coaches Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster wanted a couple of tough sessions for the senior squad so some fresh bodies were requested from the academy and sub academy. Penny, in the sub academy and fresh out of school, got the shout. He recalls:
"I was there as a bit of a tackle pad. I remember going over for a poach of a ball and in comes James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong for the first hit of the session. Jeez, I was 18 or 19 years old going up against these lads. It was pretty intense – getting smashed out of a ruck."
"It takes a while," he admits. "Those sessions are a lot more physical and demanding. The first few months were a bit of a shock and I was struggling a bit in a couple of those sessions, fitness-wise. But then you kind of get used to it. Towards the second half of the season, and this season, you get used to it and it becomes second nature to you."
Seven months prior to that training session with the Leinster senior squad, Penny was rueing another Schools Cup loss to Belvedere College.
"We always had a pretty good team," he tells us, "and I don’t know what it was but for five years in a row, we lost to Belvo every single time. Whether it was the quarters or semis, every single time. We never actually got to the final."
Penny's Schools Cup quest ended at the semi-final stages and he was forced to watch on as Blackrock crushed his nemesis in the final. It was a bitter end to his journey but, at that stage, Leinster and Ireland U20 were already beckoning.
The youngest of three Penny children, Scott went to St Laurence's National School in Kilmacud and was a keen GAA player for the local Crokes.
"Until I got to St Michael's, I would have preferred playing Gaelic and hurling. That would have been what was mostly played at my (primary) school and I was at Crokes from when I was four or five. I would have played once a week for Lansdowne but when I got to Michaels, I made the first year team and then the Js [Junior Team] in second year. Then I played pretty much every year since second year. I kind of gave up the Gaelic and focused on the rugby, primarily."
He joined his older brother, Alex, at St Michael's College - the recent production line of so many Leinster and Ireland stars - and was straight into their First Year XV as a No.8. He was already on the track and can recall heading along to watch big Senior Cup games with Ross Byrne the Michaels star.
He made the Junior Cup panel in second year and was already drawing notice at openside flanker by third year. Each summer had seen him go back to play GAA but, such was his rugby ascent, Leinster U18s got him in for summer sessions and he chose the oval ball.
For Penny, the thoughts that rugby could be a viable career option formed early on. "I think in first year, mainly," he recalls.
"I would have been one of the stand-out players, and people started saying, ‘You could do this full time’. And then, by third year, I started playing the big Junior Cup games. In first year, you don’t really get that fan experience as there’s not that many people going to your games. When you start playing cup, you get the crowds going to the stadium and it’s an unbelievable experience. You want to do it for the rest of your life."
Michael's College has produced a raft of players in the past decade so the promising Penny had plenty of role models to learn from, and follow. He comments:
"Most of the teachers have a big involvement in rugby. Most of them would be coaching in the school. And you see the pictures up of all the lads – James Ryan, Dan Leavy and all – who were all professional players when I was growing up. Since first year, you’d see pictures of them up on the wall, playing for the cup. They talk about those lads so highly, and you kind of want to be like them when you graduate from school."
Penny had played Leinster U18s and U19s by the time he was finishing and St Michael's, as well as lining out for Ireland U19. By the time he received his Leaving Cert results, he was already plotting to win a senior cap, or possibly two, in his first season.
"When you get into Leinster," says Penny, "the big emphasis is on your fitness, in the sub-academy definitely. I’ve definitely gotten bigger. In the sub-academy, you do a lot more gym than you even would in school. Even in that first year, you are trying to get as big and fit as possible so you’re ready to take that next step up."
Having trained with the senior squad before that Treviso game, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster brought him to Italy as a travelling reserve. "I was in all the meetings for the games – doing the previews and reviews. So I got a feeling for the environment before I got the opportunity.
"Treviso was my first trip away with the seniors was… Stu said me down and was having a chat with me. This whole background chat – he was asking me loads of questions and telling me to be myself. That’s all you can really do, he said.
"The week of Ospreys [that November] was my first cap and Leo came up to me and said, ‘Yeah, you’re starting’. I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool!’ Obviously, I had never expected to start my first game either. It was pretty impressive. I was pretty happy with myself."
The major lesson Penny took away from that experience was not to hang around his house all match-day and to not mull over the game to come too much. "When I got to the changing room, I was still nervous but once I got out onto the pitch, I remember making my first tackle and the nerves just went away and I was just doing my thing."
That thing included a debut try, on 31 minutes, and an excellent outing in a 52-7 victory at The RDS. Former Michaels students Noel Reid, Max Deegan and Nick McCarthy also starred in the victory, as did Scott Fardy and James Lowe. The first senior step had been taken.
By the time Penny linked up with the Ireland U20s squad for the 2019 Six Nations, he had won three more senior caps, all in the jersey of his rugby idol Sean O'Brien. Having admired 'The Tullow Tank' as a Leinster fan, for years, Penny was eager to learn all he could from him.
"From an Ireland and Leinster point of view, it was always Sean O’Brien. When I was growing up, I used to always go to Leinster games and he was the one that was making the big carries, looked like a bit of a leader too.
"I never got to meet him until I got to Leinster, last season, and I kind of followed him. I took a lot of advice off him, and help in reviewing games, individually. He was always the one who was a bit of a mentor. And he was a great role model for a lot of kids as well.
"He’d be going to meetings... giving his point of view and helping out the younger lads. It was good to pick his brains and take on as much as possible."
Penny says O'Brien was still as vocal and helpful as ever as he rehabbed from hip resurfacing at Leinster HQ all the way up until November of last year. Contracted up with the province until after the World Cup, he did his part by taking the likes of Penny and Will Connors to one side and helping them in any way he could. Now with London Irish, it was a parting gift that summed up what Leinster meant to him.
Noel McNamara's U20s side had home fixtures, in Cork, against England and France but were by no means favourites for the championship. It had been nine years since an Irish team had topped the standings.
"Not many people would have been expecting that much from us," he recalls.
"The last few years before us hadn’t done that well in the Six Nations. They would have got third place but they wouldn’t have been close to winning it. Our year would have got on well and they always would have been close to the Munster, Ulster and Connacht lads.
"From doing Ireland U18s, we could have had a good bond with them and played with them a lot. So, when we came together for the Six Nations, we felt confident. Getting that first win against England gave us a big confidence boost going into the tournament itself.
"It was down in Irish Independent Park [and] the whole family travelled down. It was the same for all the other lads. They’d all be in around the changing rooms, after the game, and everyone is on such a good buzz after you win. You want to feel that feeling again, the week after and week after."
Ireland went on to clinch a Grand Slam in Wales the night before Warren Gatland's senior side won their own by beating Ireland on a miserably wet day in Cardiff.
He picked up two more Leinster caps to close out a remarkable first season. 2019/20 was a slow-burner, initially, due to summertime shoulder surgery but he made up for lost time after returning against Edinburgh in October of last year. He appeared in seven of Leinster's 19 victories, this season, starting five at openside and scoring three tries.
While there were clear signs of progress, and no issues with the shoulder, Penny saw several of his peers, including Will Connors and Ryan Baird, called into Ireland squads while Caelan Doris, Max Deegan and Ronan Kelleher all made Test debuts in the Guinness Six Nations.
Rugby here is set to resume on the August 22-23 weekend and Penny is busting to be involved.
"Seeing the likes of Caelan D and Ronan getting their first caps for Ireland this year, that inspires you to go and do the same. Hopefully in the next year or so, I can hopefully do the same as them. Hopefully I can make a name for myself and make my debut… It can all happen in the space of a year.
"If you get a few good games under your belt, things can change pretty quickly."
One suspects those Leinster training sessions, whenever contact is allowed, will be as fierce as they come.
WATCH THE LATEST HOUSE OF RUGBY EPISODE HERE:
SUBSCRIBE TO BAZ & ANDREW'S HOUSE OF RUGBY: https://playpodca.st/house-of-rugby-ie
Ulster and Ireland winger Jacob Stockdale joins Barry Murphy and Andrew Trimble for the latest House of Rugby episode. Jacob talks openly about some vile abuse he received online after Ireland's World Cup exit. He also speaks about rugby's return and his Lions ambitions.