'I wish I had moved to Connacht earlier' - how Tom Daly thrived in life after Leinster

Injury and competition limited centre’s chances at Leinster, but his recent performances have put him in the Ireland frame
Rúaidhrí O'Connor

On the night before Ireland’s Six Nations squad was due to be named, Tom Daly’s phone lit up with an unknown number. Andy Farrell’s booming Lancastrian voice was on the other end to tell him that he wasn’t in the panel, but he was close.

This was no cause for celebration for the 27-year-old Carlow native, but it was still an important endorsement of his form and motivation to knuckle down further.

“This time two years ago I was probably miles away from an Ireland squad,” he says. “It’s good to be close and it would be great to see that form recognised. We’ll see what happens.”

The difference in 24 months is the number of games Daly has played. The reason he has played so many games is that he took the decision to move west.

After an injury-plagued spell at his home province, the former Ireland Sevens captain was nearing the end of his spell at Leinster.

He wanted to stay in the Irish system and Connacht coach Andy Friend had a midfield injury crisis. The stars aligned.

“The call came at a time when I knew Leinster probably weren’t going to keep me. I’d had a few conversations with Leo (Cullen) and he wasn’t sure what they were doing but said it wasn’t looking good,” he recalls.

“I was looking around in England and bits and bobs, but my first choice was always to go to one of the other provinces.

“I knew Munster and Ulster were well-stocked for centres, I had my eye on Connacht.

“It happened randomly one day, I got a call from Friendy and Leo had rung first to say he might call and I’d an hour to think about it.

“As soon as he called I’d my mind made up.

“He seemed really keen, he was really positive. He had watched a few videos of me, spoke to a few coaches like Anthony Eddy who was my Sevens coach and got very positive reports.

“It seemed like he really wanted me, what I needed was a coach that really wanted me and he promised I was getting game-time as soon as I got down.

“That’s what you need at that stage of my career. I went straight down the following Monday, when I arrived it wasn’t hard. I’d have known a lot of the guys from underage teams, I’d have good friends down here.

“I was down here two weeks and I was starting against Munster, things went well and I was straight into the team.

“As a rugby player, if you’re playing games you’re going to be happy.”

Leinster will always be home.

A midfielder, Daly attended Knockbeg College and played Gaelic football to minor level with Carlow, but his form for Carlow FC caught the eye of the Leinster scouts and when professional rugby beckoned he jumped at the chance.

He moved to Dublin, joined Lansdowne and ended up moving in with Adam Byrne, Josh van der Flier and Peter Dooley who were all pushing for a place in the senior set-up.

Daly was rated, but fortune wasn’t on his side.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, I was living with lads who are still my best friends today. That side of it was class,” he said.

“A bit of it was luck, I had injuries at bad times. The 2016/17 season I broke into the team and got 10 or 11 caps, things were going pretty well, but the first game of the following pre-season I tore my anterior cruciate ligament.

“That put me out for the majority of that year, I got back for the last game against Connacht and they hammered us, so it wasn’t the best game to come back for!

“Things didn’t go my way injury and luck-wise, it doesn’t help when you’re in Leinster and there’s a lot of competition in one position.

“Throughout my time there I was going up against Ben Te’o, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, Noel Reid – lads playing very well in their positions and things didn’t seem to fall my way.

“Luckily enough, I got the chance to go to Connacht the following season and I really haven’t looked back since.

“It’s been the making of my career, that move.”

The reason behind the success of the switch is simple.

“I haven’t looked back since,” Daly explains.

“I’m here two years, getting close to 50 caps and even if I was playing the best rugby of my life in Leinster I wouldn’t have got that many caps in two years because there’s such a pool of talent and they rotate so much.

“I’ve played every game this season, bar one, it’s been so enjoyable and my game has come on so much because of that.

“I wish I could have made the move sooner. I’m 27, I wish I’d come earlier and maybe had 50 caps by the age of 25. I’ll make the most of it anyway. I’m enjoying it here.”

Standing 6ft, 4ins and weighing in at 106kg, it would be easy to pigeon hole Daly as a one-dimensional ball-carrying No 12, but what has been most impressive is his range.

A midfielder in his football days at Knockbeg College, he kicked goals for the Sevens set-up where he also honed his footwork.

“Having those little skills and not being a one-dimensional centre definitely stands to you,” he says.

“It’s definitely something I see as a weapon. I can play that ball-carrying game if I have to, but I like to use my feet, my passing game and kick. It’s a nice blend and hopefully it’ll stand to me.”

Working with Connacht’s Lion Bundee Aki has been a benefit too.

“He’s unbelievable, he’s so competitive,” Daly says of his fellow centre. “Even now, he’s out with a ban, but his main focus is getting the team ready and he’ll go 100pc trying to get theus ready for these big interpros. “The knowledge he has in running plays, in defence; his rugby knowledge is unbelievable. “He’s been very good since I’ve come down, he’s looked after me and given me advice, gone through video.

“But, just the intensity and how much Connacht means to him is unbelievable. He knows he’s out for the next few weeks, but he wants us to win. “Being around one of the best No 12s in the world is class, he’s a team-first man. He’s unreal.”

Aki and Henshaw’s call-ups may open up spots in Ireland’s summer squad. On current form, there’s a real chance that when Farrell next calls there’ll be better news.

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