Rugby Union

Cooley has 'a special place' in Australian rugby star Michael McDonald's heart

Rugby Union

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

Cooley has 'a special place' in Australian rugby star Michael McDonald's heart

Michael McDonald is yet to be caught in training by Australia’s back row monster Michael Hooper.

Michael McDonald is yet to be caught in training by Australia’s back row monster Michael Hooper, but Fearghal Malone, Michael Carron and a few others from Cooley have clipped him once or twice.

A delegation from the Peninsula were due to jet out to Sydney to help McDonald celebrate his 21st birthday in June. Though, like everything else, Covid-19 has put their trek Down Under on the back burner.

For those of you not yet familiar with McDonald, where do we start? Scrum-half on the Junior Wallabies’ first-ever Oceania Championships winning team and an integral member of the side beaten in last year’s U20 Rugby World Cup final, the former Dundalk RFC ‘mini’ also recently made his Super Rugby debut for Waratahs.

Effectively, in the space of 12 months, the budding prospect has gone from earning his first underage international call-up to playing in the southern hemisphere’s version of the Heineken Cup, featuring alongside Hooper and Kurtley Beale and under ex-Munster head coach Rob Penney and Leinster legend Chris Whittaker.

Not even the most distinguishable of Cooley figures, like Budgie Boyle, could top that rise to prominence.

“I sat down with my parents after the Chiefs game (his debut) and just reflected for a couple of minutes,” McDonald told The Democrat.

“Growing up in Cooley, I never thought I’d be living in Australia, never mind playing for the Waratahs and living in Sydney.

“It’s a dream come true and hard to put into perspective. I’m kind of still in the moment and it will probably be a while before I’ll come to appreciate what’s gone on.

“Looking back, talking to you and going through everything, it’s crazy what has happened. You could never have planned it.

“But my parents always make sure to keep me down to earth and remember where I’ve come from and how hard they’ve worked to come to Australia. It’s about being family-orientated and grounded.

“My brothers are always slagging the hell out of me - they’re not shy in keeping me grounded - but it’s nice to look back.”

He, twin brother Andrew and his parents, Andrew and Sally Ann, emigrated to Australia in 2013, settling in Perth. Only due to be a two-year hiatus, the stint has been longer-lasting and as Michael speaks, you begin to detect an Aussieness to his twang. Give him time and you may never know that he once dreamed of playing senior football for Louth.

Funny that, given rugby has been at the forefront of his family on both sides. His father won a Towns’ Cup medal with Dundalk, older twin brothers Gearoid and Cillian - who are now based in New York and Melbourne respectively - have played in the All-Ireland League, while Sally Ann was Herr, a clan stitched in the fabric of the Mill Road club, before marriage.

Golf, though, was his sport of preference as a child and into the early teenage years, yet rugby - and making it professionally in the code - became the solitary aim upon the move to the globe’s other side. Playing off of 10 when using Greenore as his base, the clubs only now come out when team-mates want a game and he eyes an opportunity “to take their money”.

“The thing you always dream of growing up in Cooley is playing for Louth and playing in an All-Ireland final really,” he says.

“But it’s funny how things change and as soon as I moved to Australia it was never in my mind.”

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May 2, 2009: Munster 6-25 Leinster, Heineken Cup semi-final.

Whittaker was scrum-half for The Boys in Blue as they inflicted misery on Munster at Croke Park, McDonald watching in awe from the stands. Eleven years on and on occasions they find themselves reflecting back on that magical triumph.

Leinster have largely retained the upper hand in the cross-provincial duels since, leading to the scrum-half alliance, McDonald and Whittaker, taking advantage of Penney’s past, the former All Black having held the reins at Thomand Park between 2012 and ’14.

McDonald, though, is more accustomed to bearing the brunt end of slagging. A key component of the Aussies during the 2019 World Cup in Argentina, an opening round victory over Italy preceded a collision course with Ireland. A native taking on the Irish, some could have said.

“There was lots of slagging from the coaches and the lads, and a load of slagging from home as well,” he suggests, laughing.

“I’ve got so much support from lads who I grew up with in Cooley and family. The number of messages I get, which I really appreciate, means a lot. I suppose that’s the thing coming from Cooley - and the Gaelic club - there’s such a great culture and you never forget those people.

“But I got along really well with my team-mates. They were an unreal bunch of blokes to be around for those three or four months we were together. We had a lot of belief through the camps and our main goal the whole time was to win the World Cup.”

Becoming the first Junior Wallabies outfit to tame New Zealand in “five or six years” was a huge step on the journey Jason Gilmore’s side set out on. Belief emanated from their Oceania title triumph and with World Rugby Hall of Famer Stephen Larkham working with McDonald and co, hopes were high approaching last summer’s World Cup and the culmination of a ferociously intense spell.

“You’re going into multiple games in multiple weeks with only three-day turnarounds,” the No9 adds. “Durability is a massive thing in those tournaments, seeing if your body can cope with the physicality of the whole thing; constantly getting bashed up before having to back it up three days later.

“I think you’ve got to go through it to realise how hard it is, but it’s something you want to do for a living. Sometimes you just have to toughen up, face the hits and get back up from them.

“When you’re in those environments you really get a taste for it. My dream was always to play professionally, from the age of five or six growing up in Dundalk. I never really thought it would come true and because you’re working so hard for it to materialise, when it comes true it doesn’t really feel like a reality.

“You kind of fall into a bubble where you’ve to pinch yourself to make sure you realise that you’re living the dream that you’ve worked really hard for. But it’s only a start, there’s a lot more hard work to be done and that’s probably the hardest work to get done, to continue to progress and get better every year and every day. That’s how I view it - and I suppose that’s what it was like at the time.

“I committed to that team, it was all I wanted, and we’d all agreed in January that we wanted to win the World Cup and nothing would come in our way.

“We viewed that Irish game as a pivotal moment in the campaign - Ireland had won the Grand Slam and we knew they were red-hot favourites coming into the tournament. From it being such a close game, we put 40 points on them.”

Their juggernaut was in rapid motion and ahead of the final, they were seen as winners-in-waiting only for France to edge a tremendous tussle by a point, 24-23.

“We fell one short, which wasn’t ideal,” he mutters, exhaling in frustration.

Better days lay ahead, though.

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April 14, 2019: Western Force 42-10 Asia Pacific Dragons, Global Rapid Rugby.

Having aspired to represent Perth’s Western Force professionally as a child, playing at Palmyra Rugby Club, Super Rugby’s opting to omit the Aussie outfit in 2017 was like “a massive kick in the guts” for McDonald.

“At the time I was thinking it was a massive setback because I’d never even dreamed of coming to Sydney.”

But Force remained an entity - only in the lesser competition founded and funded by billionaire Andrew Forrest - thus, ensuring McDonald’s route to the top remained viable.

Selected by their U20 panel, there came a positional switch, across the half-back line, which ranks alongside the living alteration as arguably the most successful move he’s ever made.

“The year I switched I was halfway through pre-season with Western Force U20s and it got thrown out to me to make the switch. It was kind of ‘make the switch to get on the team or don’t make it and try your hardest to make the team as No10, which mightn’t have happened’.”

And there hasn’t been a backward glance since. His first-team debut came last April, in a handy victory, and after starring internationally, Waratahs came calling. Another uproot in the offing, from west Australia to the south-east coast, but an ideal transfer all the same.

“My goal was always to play Super Rugby, so as soon as the opportunity came up to go to the Waratahs I jumped at it and grabbed it with both hands.

“It’s a childhood dream and you look at the legacy of some of the Waratahs players who’ve played before you, some unreal players have played for our club.

“Education is massive in the club’s development of you, too, I suppose. Things outside of rugby are just as important as those within it, so I’m studying a diploma of business as well as playing.

“They do give you some time to make sure your life outside of footy is staying relatively on point and it’s good for you mentally. Things like this, the coronavirus, can pop up and it’s given a massive hit to every sport, but you’ve just got to think like ‘what if I got an injury tomorrow and my career was over?’”

At a stage where he had been chomping at the bit for more game-time at the highest level, the epidemic’s outbreak has put McDonald’s progression on ice for the time being. A pity. Had his upward curve continued to rise so acutely, Dave Rennie may have been calling him up, or would that have been Andy Farrell?

Will it be Australia or Ireland, at senior level?

“It’s probably the hardest decision ever and I don’t know if anyone else has an appreciation for it,” he says, his agony channelling clearly.

“As cliched as it sounds, and it might be boring, but it really is one step at a time. Once you get too ahead of yourself that’s when the hard work goes out the window and things don’t happen as efficiently as you want them to.

“It’s one of the toughest decisions ever and I’m sure when the decision comes to me, hopefully it does, I’m sure I’ll have enough resources in place and advice to guide me on the right path.”

Regardless, the Cooley Peninsula looks to have itself another rugby superstar. McDonald, thus far, has managed to keep his links to Rob and Dave Kearney under wraps. He hasn’t been back in Ireland for three years and may never return for good, but home, ultimately, remains a weight tied to his heartstrings.

“Home is always in the back of your mind and there are a lot of special people who are living there. Cooley has a very special place in my heart and somewhere I’ll always keep in my heart and identity.”

Ireland or Australia, he’ll always be a Kickham.