The Unstoppable Rise of Darragh Fanning

Darragh Fanning has started every game for Leinster this season, and on Saturday night his Leinster career hit new heights, as he scored two tries in his first European Cup match. He’s living the dream. Initially signed to plug a gap while players were injured and unavailable, with a glut of players still injured, he’s becoming a fixture in the team. Expect to see plenty more of him this season.

Fanning, or ‘Fanj’ as he’s known, is 28 years old and so qualifies as a late bloomer. A productive winger for St Mary’s at AIL level, he spent a season at Connacht before returning to the club game, then Leinster came calling. If you had told Leinster fans that he would be starting a European match a year ago, they probably would have laughed. But here he is, and with two tries to his name. It’s as many as Irish international wing Dave Kearney managed in the whole of last season.

There’s a tendency on the terraces and in internet fora to be a bit sniffy about players who arrive at the top level via this path – and before we’re accused of pointing fingers, we’re happy to admit some culpability ourselves. We talked recently about the hipster’s choice players; guys like Fanj are really the anti-hipster’s choice. They scream ‘journeyman’, and nobody ever gets excited about that.  How skilful can they be if they were languishing in the AIL for most of their mid-20s? The accepted way for players to get to the pro ranks in Ireland is via the academy structures. When a player arrives in the first team, freshly minted by the academy, hipster ‘do’ rendered just-so, there is an innate desire to proclaim him the next big thing. When someone is brought in to ‘do a job’ from the AIL it’s a case of ‘meh’.

Demented Mole has written about the topic, and noted that the sole route to professionalism via the academy has its flaws in that it favours those who are physically developed at a young age, and others who have potential but may not have the same physical development by the time they’re 18 can slip through the net. Brendan Macken has always had the look of someone who became a campus hero because he could steamroll other schoolkids, but never developed the skills to thrive against better, stronger players.

It’s very different in France, and to an extent in England, where there is a second-tier professional league which is an ideal breeding ground for youngsters, and the smaller clubs often act as feeders to the Top 14 sides. It means more players who may be unheralded in their youth at least find a home in the second division or at one of the smaller Top 14 sides, rather than slipping out of the professional game; and if they do manage to bloom later in their careers, they can find themselves elevated to the top level. Morgan Parra started life at Bourgoin; Vincent Clerc had four years at Grenoble. There are umpteen Irish plugging away in both ProD2 and the English Championship, while scrum half Jambo Hart has found himself elevated to the Top 14 and is dining out on great reviews with high-flying Grenoble.

Other players to make the upgrade from AIL to pro in recent(-ish) years are Craig Ronaldson at Connacht and the pick of the bunch, James Coughlan who proved a stalwart for Munster after his belated elevation, and currently finds himself earning a last-of-the-summer-wine payday with Pau in the ProD2.  Coughlan proved so effective that some excitable fans thought he should displace Jamie Heaslip from the Irish team. Whether Fanning can become such a cause celebre for Leinster remains to be seen, but for the moment his progress continues. The thought of him going up against Christian Wade was mildly terrifying, but there’s more to rugby than screeching pace. Wade scored a brilliant try, but Fanning scored two and Leinster won the match. He will never be able to do some of the things Wade does but there are plenty of things Wade isn’t great at that Fanning is pretty good at, like clearing rucks etc. *genuflects in front of framed Joe Schmidt picture*.  That’s rugby for you, it takes all sorts.


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  1. I am yet to be convinced whether Fanning can really cut it consistently at this level, he always strikes me as a poor man’s Alex Cuthbert, but maybe it’s just a matter of my own bad taste as I have also never rated the Welsh man despite his fine try scoring record. Either way if Fanning keeps scoring the Leinster fans will be happy. I for one love the late bloomer stories and guys coming from the AIL rather than just going straight from school to academy to pro contract, so more luck to him. Coughlan should have got a cap, during a Lions tour or when Heaslip was injured or something……oh.

  2. Yossarian

     /  October 21, 2014

    I was hoping that the stream lining of the AIL was going to lead to a concentration of talent playing against each other week in week out. The U20’s was fairly professional with scholarships etc and i hoped we could see a real driving up of standards. Then we get the step of banning payment to players. OK in theory, very hard to enforce in practice. Instead of having a small semi-pro league the Provinces could dip into we have it stopped.
    An AIL of semi pro, recent U20 internationals guided by a few older stalwarts would be great and could give meaningful game time to Academy players other than a few B&I cup games.

    • Amiga500

       /  October 21, 2014

      The AIL is too big for a viable level of funding to have an effect – it would be too diluted.

      Reduce it to one division, separate it from the rest of the leagues (make it franchise) and you have an IrishTM cup-esque arrangement. Very, very difficult given the history of the club game.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  October 21, 2014

        It’ll happen eventually, we need more players and sub Pro 12 comp, market forces and all that.

      • toro toro

         /  October 23, 2014

        It won’t happen, because the club game is not your fucking toy. It was here before the provincial game, it was here even before the international game, and even when those of us who run and/or support it agree that the provincial and international games are ultimately more important, we’re damned if we’re going to become subservient to their needs.

        Get your own damn beloved community institutions to warp and shape to your perceived immediate needs.

  3. I think he’s made good progress since last year but he’s still a little headless in the chase.

  4. Shelflife68

     /  October 21, 2014

    You have to admire Fanj for his perserverance, many would have given up the dream in his position.
    Says alot about the mindset and mental toughness of players as well. No matter how much ability you have if youre not prepared to put in the hard work its no good to you. It cant be easy being a 20yr old out with your mates and supping on ballygowan because you have training tomorrow and they are on the lash.

    Need more than just ability, need a strong work ethic as well. Fair play to him!

  5. D6W

     /  October 21, 2014

    In as much as this piece is about using the AIL as a stepping stone into the provinces and beyond, I totally agree. I hope the new performance director at IRFU is looking at how to make the AIL an alternative feeder route.

    And Fanning’s is a great story. He has filled a gap, and earned his contract with those two crucial tries sunday. But he has clearly fulfilled his potential completely, I don’t think we can expect him to go up another level. His lack of speed is a hinderance, and while maybe nobody could have caught Wade, a faster winger might have got closer and closed down the angle a bit more to give Madigan a better chance. And for those who watch him for Leinster on a weekly basis, he seems a bit clumsy and out of place, like a second row playing on the wing.

    But to be positive, he is doing better than could have been expected so fair play to him.

  6. Fanning is a very useful player for Leinster, strong, good in the air, solid basic skills, and a good decision-maker on the pitch. If he had real pace or acceleration he’d be a very good player, as opposed to a very useful player. If I were to pick a player to compare him to, it’d probably be Ian Dowling. (He’s certainly nothing like Alex Cuthbert.)

    it is nice to see a guy breaking through at a later stage, having traveled a very different path from what has become the norm for professional rugby players. Having a character like that around the place is probably good for the squad, too; there’s a world of difference between guys who make their European debut as a fresh-faced 20-year old Academy graduate and a guy who’s doing it as a well-traveled 28-year old, and that diversity of life experience is worth something, especially as a demonstration of the value of hard work and perseverance.

    The question it does raise for me is how effectively the products of the Leinster youth system and academy have been managed. Off the top of my head I’d certainly have Andrew Conway and Niall Morris ahead of Fanning, but both have flown the coop. Then you look at the likes of Matt Healy or Niyi Adeolokun out west or Darren Hudson at Bristol, who all have genuine pace and footballing ability but weren’t rated by the Leinster structures (possibly for good reasons). And then you look at the current youngsters, who not only have Fanning ahead of them but then have Mick McGrath parachuted in ahead of them too; I’m mostly thinking of Adam Byrne (who Schmidt debuted extremely young) and Sam Coghlan-Murray, but Cian Kelleher looked a real prospect for the u20s last season too. That’s a lot of players who haven’t been or aren’t being shown a clear pathway to the senior side, which must be a little bit concerning.

    • curates_egg

       /  October 21, 2014

      This is a very pertinent post. The Fanning story is great but he was only given a contract because we let Conway go (and I still believe Conway is a real class player, with a good bit more pace than Fanning). I am not as concerned by Hudson’s choice to leave (and his seeming replacement by McGrath) but it is a strange message to give to the players coming through the academy.

  7. Luckycharmer

     /  October 21, 2014

    It is a bit of Myth that he was languishing in the AIL – he played Semi pro in Australia for 2 years after Connacht- he played for the Brumbie A team, Brumbies 7 team and won Top try scorer in ACT rugby. He also far from a Rebels contract he scored in the trial. and

  8. NotMichaelBent

     /  October 21, 2014

    Another real compliment about the quality and possible purpose of the AIL over the weekend was Clive Ross coming off the bench for Ulster. I know he was only there because of injuries but he looked alright.

    He’s a guy from Cork, who was playing for a Dublin team in the AIL last year, and now is playing for European rugby for Ulster.

    For obvious population reasons, and as pointed out in Donal Lenihan’s article a few weeks ago (, the Dublin clubs are going to have more players available to them, so it’s going to be a big thing going forward that Ulster and Munster keep an eye on the AIL players and bring them in on development contracts regardless of whether they’re locals or not.

  9. Yossarian

     /  October 21, 2014

    Trimble set to miss Autumn internationals now. If Fanning was a 21 year old coming out of the Leinster academy who had started every game for Leinster this season and just scored 2 tries in Europe his name would be popping up in an Ireland context!

  10. hulkinator

     /  October 21, 2014

    The good thing about the AIL is you can go and get players who may not be world class but they can do a job for the province. Before and maybe still now, you have the provinces going abroad signing journeyman players.

    Theres no way an academy can get in all the best talent. A lot depends on luck. For instance if the team is weak in some areas the academy might take in extra players in that area one year while potentially better players might be ignored the next year. You also have young players getting injured etc.

    Mick McGrath is a player who could go on to have a good career. He needs a bit of time getting use to the professional game but he has natural talent to work on.

    Comparing Fanning to Cuthbert fair IMO. Cuthbert is slightly faster but they’re both similar. Maybe Fanning is better defensively?? Cuthbert is very good at picking running lines to score and thats something Fanning has done lately.

    • Let’s knock this on the head before it gets out of hand. Darragh Fanning is a 6’2″, 15 stone winger with limited pace who’s made a professional breakthrough at 27 off the back of possessing solid basics. Alex Cuthbert is a 6’6″ winger, 16 stone with scorching pace and brilliant footwork who made his debut for Wales at 21, was a Lion at 23, and has a Test scoring rate of slightly less than a try every other game. There is literally no comparison between the two, and any comparison is massively unfair to Darragh Fanning.

      • I don’t think there’s any fear of things getting out of hand….so hear goes one more comment!:) I realise that their careers have been completely different and that’s not the point I was making. All I meant when I made the comparison is that when I see Fanning play he reminds of Cuthbert but a poor mans version. Both are big rangy wingers with fairly basic skills who run similar type lines. Cuthbert is much stonger, bigger and quicker and that’s what makes him such an effective player (don’t really agree with the brilliant footwork). I’ve never seen Fanning play at AIL but I imagine he would look like Cuthbert at the top level against that lower level competition, Cuthbert is a much better player and that’s why he is able to do it for Wales, Lions etc. And as I mentioned in my first post I love the AIL success stories so more luck to him! (Sorry for re-hashing this one last time but I felt my point had been taken completely the wrong way/out of context)

  11. curates_egg

     /  October 21, 2014

    Listen lads, the Fanning story is great and you would want to be a real begrudger not to like it. However, it’s best not to get ahead of yourselves.

    While the story is great, I think Thoughtless makes a very valid point about how it (and to a lesser extent Mick McGrath) fits in with the enormous investment and effort being put into the academy. We lost Conway – a phenomenal talent in my opinion – because he wasn’t getting enough game-time (only for Nacewa to subsequently retire) – and then had to scramble to bring in Fanning. We have lost Morris for similar reasons. I regret Leinster not being able to keep Morris and Conway and, while I think he is doing a brilliant job, I don’t think Fanning is as good as either player. I am delighted to see him do well and score tries but I am also concerned about the bigger picture.

    To pick you up on one specific point: he played 14 Pro12 games last season and scored 1 try; as opposed to Kearney who played 12 and scored 3. Neither is a real try scoring winger, so it’s a silly comparison. Fanning does some things well but to try and insinuate that he is better than Kearney (based on dodgy facts) is a bit well silly. Kearney’s fielding and kick-chase are clearly better. Fanning hits rucks…but so does Kearney.

    • I’m not sure I really get the point that’s being made about Conway and Morris. It was undoubtedly unfortunate timing that Nacewa retired so soon after after Conway left but I think ye’re forgetting that we’re now looking at this with hindsight. Every great team is going to lose some good players who can’t get game time. Should Leinster have dropped players like Nacewa and Fitzgerald when they were fit and available for players like Conway thus weakening the team in the short time just in case there was a time in the future when they would have a long list of injured/departed wingers?

      • curates_egg

         /  October 21, 2014

        The point – in a nutshell – is that there is a system malfunction somewhere if we are losing good players that we have spent a lot of time and resources on in the academy, only to subsequently recruit other players in those positions who are arguably not as good.

    • Quite a lot in here.

      Just so we’re clear, we’re not saying for a minute that he’s better than Kearney (or Christian Wade for that matter). Number of tries scored is too crude a measure to apply to anything.

      I’m not sure I really understand the references to Morris and Conway. Morris left at a time when the back three was somewhat stacked, and it’s highly likely there were circumstances behind Conway’s move that we don’t really know about it, because he left with a year still to run on his Leinster deal, which is highly unusual. But they’re not here and that’s that. You can only play the hand you’re dealt and all that. Is it not up to the academy players to get themselves picked ahead of a player such as Fanning?

      • curates_egg

         /  October 21, 2014

        I guess it is up to academy players to get themselves picked…but we had another one leave last year to get game time elsewhere. My point is more that, while it is great and encouraging to see guys like Fanning and McGrath make it through, it really does beg the question of what is the point of the academy – if we are simultaneously losing academy players from the same positions. There’s always some academy player tearing up trees (Kelleher is the back this year it seems) but if we are going to recruit to the main squad in their positions (and not with marquis signings), it is sending a bad signal. Let’s put it another way: would Leinster be better with Conway and Morris over Fanning and McGrath? If so, what went wrong given the amount of time and resources invested in the former 2 by Leinster?

        I am not trying to begrudge. I really think Fanning is doing a great job and like what I have seen of McGrath…but I am worried about us not holding on to good players we have developed.

        • toro toro

           /  October 23, 2014

          When Andrew Conway left, the entire Leinster squad believed Isa was still around for the long haul, that Luke’s injury worries were over, and that multiple-cap Ferg was being squeezed out to the wing following, among other things, the emergence of Eoin O’Malley.

          It’s no real secret that Conway was aghast within a couple of months of his decision. But given his epistemic situation, neither he nor Leinster can be faulted for what happened.

  12. L.P.O.

     /  October 21, 2014

    Interesting read, as ever. Couple of points- first one truly pedantic, as the match was Sunday evening, rather than Saturday night.

    The other: it’s nice to sing his praises now, after he scores a brace in the European Cup… but did you lads not make the case a few weeks ago that the fact that Fanning was starting in a derby really showed the massive devaluation of the fixture and fall-off in standards of the players available for selection? Now you’re surrounding him with cherubs blowing trumpets and scattering rose petals?


    • Ah, we didn’t say his presence devalued the fixture or anything like it; it was more expressing surprise that Fanning was starting a marquee game, which if you’d told us would happen 12 months ago, we wouldn’t have believed you.

    • Ah LPO that really is a bit pethantic.

  13. L.P.O.

     /  October 22, 2014

    Hehe… well, 1st point was pure pedantry – just wanted the Pedant’s Pennant to be mine for one week – the second point I made was fair enough, I thought.

    ‘Much has been made of the lacklustre build-up […] It doesn’t help that lots of players are injured: the derby would be so much more attractive (not to mention intense) if Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony were on the pitch, among others. But they won’t be. […] McFadden and Darragh Fanning will probably stay in the team. Fanning playing in a Leinster v Munster derby – there you have it.’

    You don’t sound massively thrilled by said ‘surprise’, in fairness. Or am I imagining it?

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