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Six Nations: Unfazed Jack Crowley will keep striving for the next level

Ireland’s promising young outhalf has always shown a willingness to take responsibility and an eagerness to further hone his rugby game

Régis Sonnes remembers the day well. It was one morning in August, 2016. The Frenchman was conducting his first training session in English, at the start of his two-year coaching stint in Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar School. But helpfully, the temperature was in the low 20s.

Some of the boys in the Senior Cup squad were complaining of the heat. Not so the native of Mont-de-Marsan, who had lived most of his life in the south of France and was drawn to west Cork by his love of surfing.

“For me, coming from the south of France, it was nothing.”

Among the squad was a 16-year-old, in fourth year, by the name of Jack Crowley, training with boys a year or two older.


“He played scrumhalf because we had a good ‘10′, but later in the season Jack would finish games at ‘10′. Jack was smart, thinking all the time like a scrumhalf for the team, and even though he was younger than the other boys, he was strong physically, but his best position was ‘10′. He played more there in the second year and then for the club he played ‘10′.”

No step up ever fazed the youngster.

“All the time he is strong in his mentality, no fear about the next level technically or physically. Next level? It’s okay. Next level? It’s okay. All the time. Like my son says of him, Jack is a ‘clutch player’. To score the try, or something special to make it happen, he was involved.”

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After a productive spell with Toulouse and a less successful one with Agen, Sonnes returned to Bandon last summer, as technical advisor for boys and girls’ rugby at Bandon Grammar School and as underage director of coaching at Bandon RFC.

“Jack is an example for us, and for all the boys and girls here, in all aspects,” adds Sonnes. “Smart, good personality, strong mentality, a fighter and a hard worker – like the people of West Cork!”

Crowley’s family, on both sides, is steeped in Bandon rugby. His father, Fachtna, played with Bandon RFC, as did his uncles on his father’s side – Gerard, Liam and Declan – and his mother Marie’s brothers, Eoin and Liam. His older brothers Jerry and Billy play for Bandon and Cork Con, and Crowley’s cousin, Matthew, is the current Bandon fullback.

Crowley was scrumhalf on the Bandon Grammar team which reached the Munster Schools Senior Cup semi-finals in 2017 and then as captain and outhalf in 2019 scored 21 points in their quarter-final win over then defending champions Glenstal Abbey, before again being beaten by PBC, 19-18, in the semi-final.

He was also outhalf on the Bandon RFC team which won the under-18s All-Ireland title by beating Skerries 20-7 in the final. He scored a try in a personal 15-point haul.

Crowley followed Billy to Cork Con where Brian Hickey was head coach and is now director of rugby. Hickey remembers seeing Crowley play for the first time in that aforementioned 2019 schools semi-final.

“Jack very much controlled the game. I had a bit of insider knowledge from his brother, but he certainly didn’t disappoint. They were a hardy, well-coached team as well, and Jack was the spiritual leader,” recalled Hickey this week.

Hickey remembers from his first meeting with the young Crowley and his parents back in 2017 that it was not a fait accompli he would join Cork Con.

“He was quiet for the first hour, but when he did ask questions I was thinking: ‘I could be in a bit of trouble here’.”

Having coached Ronan O’Gara, Hickey was struck by the similarities that day, and since.

“I never came across Johnny Sexton other than socially but certainly Ronan wouldn’t mince his words either when asking a question, even that early. There’s a bit of steel in these fellas, and in the positions they play it’s probably vitally important. They’re your centre-forwards or your quarterbacks, so they don’t get to that level without having a fair bit of rugby IQ.”

À la O’Gara, in recent years Crowley would seek access to Temple Hill and balls for kicking practice.

“They’re very diligent, even in down weeks. But I’m guessing it’s true with Sexton as well. These guys nearly need to be obsessed with it.”

In Con’s third game of the 2019-20 season away to Terenure, their stalwart outhalf Aidan Moynihan suffered a broken ankle and the Ireland under-20 coach Noel McNamara was happy for Crowley, then 19, to be given plenty of game time. Con won their first 14 games, with Moynihan returning just as the under-20s Six Nations started.

McNamara had been over to Corsica to watch the Irish under-19s the previous Easter play their annual two games against their French counterparts.

“Ireland won and Jack played well, but what was remarkable was his desire to get feedback. I spoke to him for 30 minutes in the hotel and he wasn’t just looking for general platitudes. He was looking for genuine pointers on how to get better,” said McNamara from his home in Bordeaux, where he is the club’s backs coach.

On his under-20s debut against Scotland in Musgrave Park, Crowley crashed through three tackles to score in the 11th minute. Later, with the last play of the first half, he picked up an opposition knock on inside his own 22, jinked and fended two would-be tackles to break clear and then fended Scottish fullback Ollie Smith to complete a stunning 80-metre try as part of an 18-point haul.

Ireland backed up that 38-26 win up with a 36-22 victory over Wales and a 39-21 victory against England in Northampton.

“Everybody remembers Jack’s try in the first half against Scotland but I think his best performance for the under-20s was in the first half in Franklin’s Gardens. We scored a bonus point by half-time and to be honest it was just a fantastic performance.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic then hit, cutting short the under-20 Six Nations and forcing the cancellation of the under-20 World Cup, while Con’s unbeaten charge to top of the table counted for nothing as the AIL closed down for a season and a half.

Between February 2020 and October 2021, Crowley was restricted to four cameos off the bench for Munster amounting to barely an hour, as well as playing for the Irish 7s at a tournament in England.

When rugby restarted behind closed doors in the 2020-21 season and Crowley was promoted to the full Munster academy, Joey Carbery and JJ Hanrahan were in situ, and Ben Healy and Jake Flannery were in the province’s academy. Of just a dozen games for Munster, Crowley started a mere five.

Hickey was frustrated with Johann van Graan.

“When I look at Jack’s development, he makes mistakes but they don’t seem to bother him, but I wished he had played a lot more rugby then. Munster could have released Jack back to us more. He was the third man behind Joey and Ben Healy. You can see what a run of games has done for him now.”

After Healy announced his intention to move to Edinburgh and Carbery fell out of favour, Crowley was suddenly thrust into outhalf in their Champions Cup Round of 16 tie last April against the Sharks in Durban. Previously, he had only started seven games for Munster at outhalf, and once for Ireland. Since then, he has started 14 games at outhalf for Munster and four for Ireland, as well as the second half of the URC semi-final win over Leinster.

“The only way, and I stand by this, for a tight five forward or half-backs to get better is to play rugby. You can train all you want but ultimately you’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to experience failure,” says McNamara.

Crowley’s career trajectory underlines this and he still only has the game time and exposure of a 22-year-old rather than a 24-year-old.

Like Sonnes and Hickey, McNamara emphasises Crowley’s consistent willingness to try things and put errors behind him. This was evident on opening night in the Stade Velodrome with that imperfect yet resilient and telling performance in Ireland’s 38-17 win over France.

Despite an early charge down, kicking the ball dead a couple of times and missing a penalty, Crowley’s belief and courage never wavered. He kept taking the ball to the line, kept challenging the French defenders.

“He continues to show up,” said McNamara, who was in the Velodrome that night. “The worst thing that you can have is the fear of making a mistake. That’s actually worse than making a mistake. If he’s not making mistakes it means, potentially, that he’s trying to be too tidy and playing within himself, and that’s certainly not what this Irish team is about.

“I think that to be the emblem of the team that’s what he needs to be; being brave and taking responsibility. He’s one of those players that puts his hand up rather than puts his hand out, that continues to show up for the ball even it isn’t going exactly his way.

“Making errors would be the least of my concerns. If you saw someone who sat deep, who just passed the ball, or kicked conservatively, and rarely made mistakes, ultimately to me they’re not pushing themselves and they’re not going to become the player they can be. I think if you look at all the best, that’s true.

“We’re comparing a 24-year-old Jack Crowley with a 38-year-old Johnny Sexton. Even the fallacy of that doesn’t make any sense because we all remember Johnny at 23 or 24, when there were plenty of rough edges and polishing required, and Jack missed out on 18/20 months of development.

“What will help Jack is that he’s in a system that is so well embedded, and people are so comfortable in it, that maybe he gets to express himself a little bit more.”

Sonnes echoes that view, and believes what Crowley achieved in Marseille was “massive”, adding: “Yes, he made some errors, but he did some very good things, and he was always involved and the Irish team won without Sexton.

“Against Italia it was the same. All the time improving. And trying. Taking initiatives. Very important at that age. If he made an error, he stayed focused on the next job.”

Sonnes pauses and concludes simply: “I don’t know now the limit for him.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times