‘Given the challenges Ireland have had with a successor to Johnny Sexton, he’s got to be worth a prolonged go’

Tactical brain makes Skerries finest Ciarán Frawley an option at out-half for Ireland

Cian Tracey

Mark Harrington can still vividly recall the precise moment he knew he had a special talent on his hands. Skerries’ director of rugby already had an inkling, and while plenty of other talented teenagers had come through the north Co Dublin club, few could match the natural flair and instinct Ciarán Frawley showed from a young age.

“We played in a semi-final against Naas at Coolmine. The lads were U-16 at the time and were losing deep into the game,” says Harrington, chief of player welfare and rugby services at World Rugby.

“They had already tried a ‘miss one, run-around’ move, which had gone wrong because of a timing issue.

“I remember Ciarán got the backs in a huddle and they pursued almost the exact same move next time and ended scoring a try up under the sticks.

“He had spotted a trend in the outside centre, who was stepping in and leaving a hole. Ciarán had the nous and leadership skills to bring the other lads in and tell them we were going to run this move again.

“His technical and tactical nous has always been very strong. You can encourage it, but ultimately you think some of that is genetic.”

That innate understanding of the game has been evident since Frawley made his Leinster debut in 2018, and it’s also partly why Andy Farrell picked him in his Ireland squad for the New Zealand tour.

For those like Harrington who have watched Frawley since he was lining out for the Skerries minis, his progress has come as no surprise.

“The question mark is always massive in their early teens, but I would say, around 14/15, it became very clear Ciarán would have a chance of really thriving,” Harrington maintains.

“He had that driven mindset. He was as good with the ball as he was without it, very influential amongst his peers, really keen to work hard and improve himself.

“He was very competitive, hated coming second and losing. That was a challenge in itself for the coaches to try and develop a broader sense in him. Even at that age, he was very happy doing the extras. He always kept a sense of fun. He could be out with a hurl and sliotar or a rugby ball or a Gaelic ball, he was constantly out playing and I think that definitely contributes to developing the rounded players.”

Perhaps it is the Clare blood in him – his dad Tony hails from Kilmaley – because hurling and Gaelic football played a major role in his upbringing, but then again, so did most sports Frawley turned his hand to.

Crucially, Harrington and his fellow coaches in Skerries saw the value in young people playing different sports until they decided to narrow their focus, which is why a big effort was made in the local community to ensure the various clubs worked together.

“Look, Ciarán was always really talented,” Harrington continues.

“He was a very good Gaelic player. He was a very good golfer and a soccer player.

“One of the really good things was, as he was growing up, soccer kinda fell by the wayside, but a number of the lads, Ciarán included, we worked hard with Skerries Harps, the GAA club, to keep them going at both.

“I think too often rugby clubs are just as bad as Gaelic clubs. They force the kids to focus on one sport, and ultimately, both lose out.

“They kept going at both until about the age of 16/17. There is no doubt there are crossovers in terms of the skill-set.”

Frawley’s footballing ability is a real strength, and few moments summed that up more than his beautiful cross-field kick to create Tommy O’Brien’s stunning try against the Sharks in April. Interestingly, that piece of creative brilliance came when Frawley stepped in as out-half from his inside-centre channel. Having watched him blossom, Harrington isn’t alone in believing out-half is Frawley’s best position.

“He always played 10 for us. He had, by far, the best skill-set and attitude to play 10 for us. I do think, maybe naively, given the challenges Ireland have had with a successor to Johnny Sexton in that position, I’d say at some point, he’s got to be worth a prolonged go.

“For me, there are a lot of similarities between what he has to offer and what Sexton has been offering. He kicks well, he defends well. He is prepared to play flat, his distribution is really good off both hands, and he is very driven and competitive. I think part of his strength and weakness is that, apart from wing, he could pretty well fit any back-line position.”

Therein lies Frawley’s problem: his versatility can often count against him. Leinster currently see the 24-year-old as a 12, but with Robbie Henshaw ahead of him and a former All Black in Charlie Ngatai arriving from Lyon next season, the competition for places is about to get even tougher.

That said, Frawley still played 21 games for Leinster this season, including 14 starts, but just one of those came in the No 10 jersey.

It will be fascinating to see how Farrell uses Frawley in New Zealand as he gets set to make his first appearance for Ireland – eyeing involvement in Wednesday’s (uncapped) game against the Maori All Blacks.

“He was certainly offered scholarships to some of the big schools, but he decided to stay put in Skerries Community College, which was great for us,” Harrington adds.

“There is no doubt that lads have a massive advantage going to the big schools, but you would still like to think that with the right . . . that even in a club environment, you’ll get some that come out the other end.

“I remember that team I had, Ciarán turned 18 on the Friday and played in the AIL on the Saturday. He was very able for it – it was no big transition for him. He’s also unique in terms of his age profile. He’s December-born, so he has always been one of the youngest in every squad he has played in, and that’s unusual because there is this relative age effect.”

Skerries are proud of Frawley’s pathway, just as they are of brothers Alan and David O’Connor, who, up until this season, were playing with Ulster together, as well as Connacht back-row Conor Oliver and Ireland sevens star Hugo Lennox. Before them, Dr Bill Mulcahy, a two-time Lions tourist and Ireland captain, originally from Limerick and who went to St Munchin’s College, Jim Glennon and Killian Keane also represented Ireland.

The hope for everyone in Skerries is that Frawley can become a modern-day Ireland international in the coming weeks. “It would be fantastic. We would be absolutely delighted,” Harrington adds. “Even when the squad was announced, they listed him as Skerries even though he went on to UCD. It’s brilliant for us as a club and I think he’s delighted with that as well.

“If he’s picked, I am sure there will be big fanfare in the club. For the younger lads who are aspirational about their rugby, for them to see Ciarán’s path makes it much more real for them.”

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