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.