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Thursday 8 December 2016

Brent Pope: Underrated Shane Jennings always put Leinster first

Retiring Leinster flanker a brilliant leader all the way since school days

Shane Jennings
Shane Jennings

Years ago, Willie Dawson then the backline coach at Lansdowne RFC and I were asked by Mike Ruddock to coach a young Leinster 'A' side for a series of matches.

My father Mick was over visiting me at the time, and I invited him along to the 'A' match in Donnybrook. After the game, as we sat and dissected the game and its prominent players, my father who was always a great judge of rugby talent said: "What about that young Leinster centre he has everything?"

That aspiring young UCD player was, of course, a youthful Brian O'Driscoll. A couple of years later, in the mid to late 1990's I was fortunate to be at a Leinster Junior Cup Schools final in Lansdowne Road involving my old club St Mary's College.

There was a howling gale that particular day, and St Mary's looked on the back foot for large periods of the match, apart from one standout player. A young loose forward who, in my opinion, was years ahead of his time.

Not only was he mature physically, but more importantly at that age, mentally. This was a player that almost single-handedly took control of the whole match - a natural leader who made all the key decisions on the field, especially into the wind and was responsible for St Mary's famous victory.

At one stage into the wind he broke from the back of the scrum and charged at the Terenure backs with such force that a defender lost his boot as he ploughed through him.

Just as my father had done a couple of years before with Brian O Driscoll, I immediately turned to a fellow St Marys stalwart sitting next to me and said: "That young No 8 will play for his country, one day, no doubt about it." That player was Shane Jennings, a player who will retire his Leinster No 7 jersey in just a couple of weeks time.

What an underrated servant Jennings has been for both club and country over the years, a player hugely respected by his peers on both these Islands and abroad, as an abrasive, no-nonsense type of player who is not only a hugely intelligent player, but also a great captain and team man.

Jennings received his first real major break in 2007 when he replaced injured Ireland and Leinster flanker Keith Gleeson in a European Cup game, and despite not being able to hold down a regular starting position as Leinster's first choice open side flanker for a couple of years prior to that, Jennings had already done enough to impress retiring English and Lions legend Neil Back.

Back targeted Jennings as his natural successor at Leicester, coaxing the young Leinster flanker and his up and coming second-row Leo Cullen to the heights of the English Premiership.

The two players would soon became cult heroes in the famous club, winning the English Championship in just their second year at the club, Jennings being voted runner up in the 2007 Premiership Player of the Year, a vote made all the more special because it was voted by his peers.

Both Jennings and Cullen took huge leadership roles in their new club, but for significantly it hardened them up and gave them invaluable and regular game time and when the duo were ready to return to Leinster they were both far more experienced and street wise players, then ready to impart their vast knowledge and leadership qualities on a Leinster team that would soon go onto to become the toast of European rugby.

Both players would eventually take central roles in Leinster's success, not only as players with three European medals pinned to their chest but as iconic Leinster team leaders both on and off the field.

Despite his longevity Jennings has only donned the full international colours 13 times, far less than his talent deserved, and in another generation without the glut of quality talent in that position Jennings would have surely been capped far more often.

However, to represent and captain nearly every Irish team he was ever involved with, from schoolboy rugby upward, and to do it in such an understated and modest way is Jennings' legacy, he always put the team first.

Having spoken to people in the business world, Jennings has been preparing for his 'rugby after life' just as meticulously and diligently as he has dedicated his life up until now to rugby. He realised that the life of a professional rugby can be rewarding but short.

"I had an epiphany a few years ago when I saw a former rugby player, 'My God, I don't want to be that guy'. He wasn't prepared. He was struggling," Jennings said.

"Players have to realise that this is the reality of the game. It is a great, great life. It's a big business and it's a great game. But, it can be cruel as well. You've got to prepare yourself for it."

Those that know Jennings best will know that the hardnosed and driven flanker will succeed in that field as well.

He will not want a huge fanfare when he leaves - it's not his style. He will hopefully run out onto the RDS for the last time the same way he did the first and then slip quietly out the back door.

The fact that is not in a European Cup or Pro 12 final will not unduly faze him. No doubt some of the greats of Leinster and Irish rugby will be there to cheer him on. I for one will have the pleasure of saying: "I saw him play, I wish him well".

 

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