How rejection bred resilience in Ireland’s centre of excellence


This is a story about a reject. Garry Ringrose. Long before he was considered one of the best outside centres in the world, he wasn’t even the best option in his class.

A sub scrum-half in his third year at school, Ringrose switched to full-back in fifth class and only ended up wearing the No.13 shirt by accident, when a schoolmate got injured. That he ended up the hero in a Schools Cup final a few months later is a trailer for the movie to come.

For overcoming obstacles is part of his DNA. His father, Niall, a promising scrum-half, was forced into early retirement with injury. Ringrose has been plagued by knocks, too, but has always bounced back, at school, with the national Under-20 side, with Ireland.

Twice he’s been eligible to tour with the Lions. Twice he has been turned down, Jonathan Joseph preferred in 2017, Chris Harris, staggeringly, getting the nod ahead of him four years later.

Ringrose started as a scrum-half before moving to centre and playing for Ireland U20s at the Junior World Championships (Photo Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Yet each time the response has been the same. Arguably the two best seasons of his career came in the years immediately after a Lions tour, a theme that was apparent when the teenage Ringrose, dumped off the Ireland Under-20 team, later fought his way into the Junior World Cup squad. “I was the last pick to board the plane,” he said.

And yet he ended up shortlisted for player of the tournament.

A portrait of a defiant character is quickly emerging. Ringrose is fearless, sublimely talented and blissfully entertaining. But more importantly than that, he is mentally resilient. No obstacle ever seemed too large. Patience as well as determination became his bywords.

People express their confidence in different ways. With Garry, it was always there. He didn’t need to be brash, loud. Don’t for one second think he didn’t possess self-belief in spades.

“I wasn’t good enough to make the school team as a third year,” he admitted in the first major interview of his professional career. “But in my head I was always ambitious to play at the top level. The turning point came when I decided not to feel sorry for myself for not getting selected. I kind of had an attitude shift in that regard and really said: ‘No matter what, from now on, I am going to enjoy my rugby’.”

Looking at these quotes now, from a distance of nine years, is revelatory. “Garry was always single-minded,” said Enda McNulty, the former Ireland team psychologist. “People express their confidence in different ways. With Garry, it was always there. He didn’t need to be brash, loud. Don’t for one second think he didn’t possess self-belief in spades.”

McNulty wasn’t the only person who could see this because there was a time, early in his career, when he was continually dubbed the new Brian O’Driscoll, Jonny Wilkinson once turning to O’Driscoll in the ITV studios during the half-time analysis to make this precise point. “He moves just like you, Brian.”

Garry Ringrose
Ringrose’s running lines and rugby intelligence brought frequent comparisons with Brian O’Driscoll (Photo Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

O’Driscoll, too, championed his cause to earn an Ireland call-up before it was fashionable to do so. Yet Joe Schmidt, the then Ireland coach, remained patient, fully aware of the kid’s potential but also the damage that could be caused by a premature promotion.

While all this was going on, Ringrose was doing everything he could to avoid the attention. A business and law degree in UCD proved a valuable distraction, something the centre continued right through the first three years of his pro career, once sitting an exam in the Aviva Stadium after the completion of a Captain’s Run prior to a Champions Cup match.

“It made sense; it saved stress,” he explained afterwards, perplexed by the interest of a group of rugby journalists in his life away from the sport.

I focus in on the small details and not get wrapped up in other stuff. I wouldn’t pay much respect to what people are saying about me.

Yet this is precisely why he has evolved into the player he has become. A normal life outside the game has allowed him to thrive within it. As well as this, rejection doesn’t sting. It challenges him. He queries the reasons why and then goes to work to correct his flaws.

Rugby is both profession and passion but not the only thing in his life. Two of his three siblings don’t play the game.

“I’ve a good support system at home with my family: an older brother and a younger brother and sister so there’s a lot going on at home,” he once said. “They keep my feet on the ground. Then I’ve a good group of mates who are very supportive but don’t necessarily play rugby themselves.

“The attitude I take is very short-term-goal focused. I focus in on the small details and not get wrapped up in other stuff. I wouldn’t pay much respect to what people are saying about me.”

Garry Ringrose
Ringrose has won four Pro14 titles and a European crown with Leinster and recently played his 50th Champions Cup game for the province (Photo Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

As the years passed, and the medals accumulated, more and more people had something to say. They noted how he glided rather than run; how he survived in tight corners before producing the killer pass; how he compensated for a lack of bulk by honing his tackling technique.

Suddenly coaches formed a queue to offer praise.

This was Andy Farrell in 2018: “What Garry has is a great rugby brain; defending at 13, on the edge, is the hardest place to defend on the rugby field. Garry does it so well because he is analytical, smart. He’s a great pro.”

He came for a training match with the Ireland Under-20s and just had a rugby intellect as to what lines to run. He had nice hands. I remember him vividly, thinking that this guy has something special

Here’s Mike Ruddock, Wales’ Grand Slam-winning coach from 2005, later Ringrose’s coach with the Ireland Under-20s. “He is just that Rolls Royce-type player that you see once in a generation. Class.”

Rory Best, the former Ireland captain, mentioned his footwork en route to explaining how he was the one Irish player who had the ‘X-Factor’.

O’Driscoll, meanwhile, remembered the young Ringrose, who he first encountered in O’Driscoll’s final year as a player. “He came for a training match with the Ireland Under-20s and just had a rugby intellect as to what lines to run. He had nice hands. I remember him vividly, thinking that this guy has something special.”

But then – and this is a recurring theme in the making of Garry Ringrose – he was dumped off the Under-20 panel. In an interview with The Irish Times, O’Driscoll couldn’t believe he’d been omitted. “There were other guys who weren’t nearly as good as Garry.”

Here was another crossroads moment. His first had been as a schoolboy. His third and fourth ones would come when Warren Gatland named his Lions squads for New Zealand and then South Africa. Each time, Ringrose reacted to the squad omissions by fighting back.

Initially, as a kid and an Under-20 player, it was by making himself physically stronger. As an international, post-2017 and 2021, it was by working on his mental strength.

Garry Ringrose
Ringrose has become more vocal as a leader and is co-captain of Leinster this season (Photo Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Stuart Lancaster, the then Leinster coach, played a part in that, identifying Ringrose as a leader at a time when everyone else considered him a shy introvert. It was Lancaster who noted, around 2019, how Ringrose was beginning to be more vocal in team meetings, “taking responsibility and taking a lot of the burden off Johnny (Sexton)”.

Soon others were copping on. Iain Henderson, the Ulster captain and Ireland second row, began to hear Ringrose’s voice in team huddles. “For me he leads in what he does,” Henderson said. “If I see Garry’s name on the team-sheet, I know automatically he is going to put in a performance. For me that’s a quality, a style of leadership that will instil confidence in all the players around him, that he is going to do the job to the best of his ability.”

Like O’Driscoll, he played different roles at school – scrum-half, full-back. Like O’Driscoll, he progressed from Blackrock College to UCD, from No.9 to No.13. Ringrose’s growth spurt, like O’Driscoll’s, came late. Those experiences in different positions helped by the time he finally found a home at outside centre.

And now all these years later, he may be asked to switch again, as Ireland have a vacancy (and a problem) on the wing. Friday in Marseille will mark the beginning of his eighth Six Nations campaign as he bids for a third Grand Slam. O’Driscoll only ever won one.

Then again, the reject never cared much for comparisons. The quiet man of Irish rugby always had his own identity.





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