What it’s like to be a professional rugby player

You need to be hard af

Playing professional rugby is a dream for hundreds of thousands of people. 

But behind the dream is a brutal reality: the grinding hours in the gym, the career-changing injuries, the knowledge that there a dozen players out there who’d do anything to take your place in the team.

Cian Romaine came through the ranks at St Benedict’s School, Ealing.

He moved to Ireland, where he has family roots, to play for Connacht’s academy side. I talked to him about the intensity of academy, international and club rugby, the diets, the gym, the pain and the nights out.

Cian Romaine, 20, Back row, Connacht & Ireland

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Where are you currently playing?

I’m playing for Connacht’s academy side and I’m based in Galway. I’m a back row, not entirely sure what my best position is yet.

I started playing rugby at St Benedict’s School, Ealing when I was 11. But I only got properly into it when I was 16: I had a growth spurt and moved to second row and things really picked up from there.

Your game has improved a lot since then hasn’t it?

When I was at school I wasn’t recognised as a potential professional. My coach here described me as a “shot in the dark” when they brought me over to the academy programme for a couple of summers. It’s basically a professional environment where don’t get paid. It’s the main reason why I improved so much.

What was the academy like?

Coming in and training with senior players was originally pretty daunting. It helped my development a huge amount. You learn so much more about the technical side of the game compared with school.

How close are you to your club debut?

I’ve played quite a few games for the NUIG Academy, which is basically the A team. This is where players who aren’t playing for the seniors play with some of the academy players in a league with similar sides.

Could you describe the step up from school rugby to academy level?

It’s huge. I never realised it at first. Looking back at school I see so much inexperience. Even watching school players now… The size difference, even in England where they try and build up big players they’re still small and the game is a lot more physical.

What impact does the increased physical pressure have?

It’s a big ask but if you’re ready to be at that level it’s a lot less daunting than if you’re a young lad playing with the seniors – that does really hurt a lot. What hurts even more is going into a tackle half-assed, not giving it your all. Now that I’ve physically developed I feel more comfortable in these situations.

Have you ever been injured?

There is a risk but at the same time so much is down to the work you put in yourself. I ruptured my ankle ligament in pre-season. That was my first proper injury in three years. I couldn’t train or run, it was boring doing fitness on a bike five days a week.

You’ve represented Ireland at an international level as well haven’t you?

Yeah, I’ve played U20s at both the World Cup and the Six Nations. The level is another step above. If you make a mistake you lose three points. At that level there are kickers who can slot it from 50 metres so you don’t really have much leeway.

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The selection process is intense, and there were big changes to the squad between the Six Nations and the World Cup. The moment you make the squad is great and surreal at the same time. I remember saying to my grandad that if someone had told me I’d be playing for Ireland U20’s I wouldn’t have believed them, not at all. It was a huge shock to me.

My friends back in England were probably as shocked – they haven’t been able to see the development I’ve made in the last few years. They root for me and it means a lot.

How has playing at this level affected your lifestyle?

In terms of diet: we have a whatsapp group with our nutritionist. We put our meals into the group and he lets us know if it’s good or bad and how we can improve on it.

At the moment i have to put on weight so I can eat what I want. Obviously I’m not going out and eating a kebab every night, I still have to watch it a little bit.

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Do you literally have a squad whatsapp group for the actual squad? 

Yeah, we have a whatsapp group with the coaches and one without them, where we can talk about stuff we don’t want them to know about.

There’s a good bit of banter. I always get teased for having an English accent – everyone else in the Academy is Irish.

Do you get the impression everyone in there will go on to be a professional? 

Not everyone. But there are some people how you look at and think “they’ll go all the way.”

It’s a fight to get a professional contract and once you have one of those you’re fighting again to get another year. You can never really relax, you always have to be performing.

It’s a brotherhood, a huge amount of camaraderie and we all help each other.

Where do you go out?

As a team on weekends, after the game. We can’t go out midweek because Galway is a small place and everyone would recognise us.

When you’re young stupid shit can happen – the older you get the more mature you get, even in your drunken state. The more serious the rugby becomes the more you straighten out. A lot of it is to do with the media, because of them you need to be on your best behaviour at all times.

It’s worth it though. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to sit in an office all day. I train and play once a week and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What do you want to achieve in the game?

Ultimately I want to play for the Irish senior side – to be as good as I possibly can be.

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