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Friday 6 December 2019

'It's kill or be killed'

Former Ireland ace McElroy aims to battle back into big time

Tadgh McElroy in the gym in Dundalk. Pic: David Conachy
Tadgh McElroy in the gym in Dundalk. Pic: David Conachy

Around about the time Ronan Kelleher walked out into the cauldron of his Champions Cup debut for Leinster last month, Tadgh McElroy was hearing the half-time whistle in Dooradoyle.

Kelleher has been Leinster's breakthrough player this season - there always seems to be at least one - while the man who once kept him out of the Ireland U20 team was taking a solid step back towards the professional game for Clontarf against Garryowen.

It has been a trying time for 22-year-old McElroy, best remembered for how he left the Leinster Sub-Academy and left an Academy place in Connacht on the table to shoot for the stars at Saracens.

Harder

The impatience and impertinence of youth is what drove McElroy to make it harder than it had to be.

"I can be my own worst enemy at times," he conceded.

At Saracens, the Dundalk native started out in a queue behind British & Irish Lions test starter Jamie George, mercurial Springbok Schalk Brits and France's 120kilos international Christopher Tolofua.

It was the most staked position at the club that has just been hit with a record fine and points deduction for transgressing the Premiership salary cap.

It wasn't long before McElroy was pounding on Mark McCall's door, looking for a chance to challenge the status quo.

"My attitude was if I float, I float. If I drown, I will know what I have to do," he said.

Kenneth McElroy was passionate about lifting weights in 'Tojos,' a notorious old gym in Dundalk.

The stories flew about the strongest man in the town and his grandson was drawn to the sweat-factory as early as 13 years of age.

"It motivated me to pick up a weight and see what I could do with it and everyone would say, 'oh, you're like your grandfather,'" he enthused.

This is where the appetite for heavy lifting met hard work and Tadgh's father Stanley, a former number eight at Dundalk RFC, was supportive when his son's rugby career found traction with the Leinster Youths.

From there, he worked his way through the system to get the nudge over Kelleher, a year younger, as first choice for the Ireland U20s in 2017. McElroy's super-aggressive style of play is modelled on a familiar face.

"It comes from when you step onto the field, it is just, ah, kill or be killed the way I look at it," he said.

"I was a massive fan of Sean O'Brien in his prime. He was a wrecking ball. I used to look at him running through lads."

McElroy took flak on social media for leaving Ireland behind for a fresh start in the home of another champion in the summer of 2017.

"I felt like I was the bad guy. That is the impression I had. I just wanted to get away from that," he shared.

"I thought Saracens was a bigger window. I was a nobody. I knew I had to work extremely hard, had to get out of my comfort zone.

"It was my first time away from home, challenging myself in a new environment.

"I feel like I made the right choice. It matured me as a person. I needed that."

Through two seasons, he moved between Saracens, making three appearances in the Premiership Cup, and on loan to Championship club Bedford Blues.

At the end of last season, McElroy was released by Sarries and was mulling over a number of offers in the Championship and one from Northampton Saints when misfortune tore away his plans.

"I was just messing about, training in Dundalk in the middle of May," he said.

"One of the guys was holding a pad. I went to run into him. I slipped, the left foot slid forward, the right stayed back and I heard a 'pop'. I went to get up and felt like my leg was dead."

The cutthroat nature of the game was made clear to McElroy.

"I felt motivated from the season just ended and by the clubs that were interested.

"It was my first proper injury, first-ever. It hit me hard. The clubs I was talking to needed someone at the start of this season.

"It just came at the worst time. No one wants an injured player. A lot of the opportunities I had were gone."

McElroy was a man without a club, recuperating the Grade-3 hamstring rip by himself in Dundalk, absent of the cosy brotherhood of a club.

The time alone allowed the demons to climb inside his head for three, long months. How had it come to this?

There was light at the end of the tunnel when the move to Clontarf was mooted.

"I just wanted a change because I had been in such a dark place," he said.

"I felt like there was a shadow over myself. The injury made me doubt myself."

Opener

He started to feel good again just two weeks before the start of the All-Ireland League, plunging head-first into the opener against UCC down in the Mardyke.

There have been two more starts against UCD and Garryowen and the rhythm is coming back to his game.

"You can't just walk in and expect to be number one," he said, about his contest with Dylan Donnellan for the number two shirt.

"You have to fight for your position. It is a great platform to show what I can do."

McElroy is back in his hometown, working away in 'The Gym' in Dundalk, focussed on getting what he wants.

"I'm trying to keep myself to myself. I know what I have to do to go where I want to go. You have to believe it, see it before it happens."

What happens if he doesn't get that professional contract?

"There will be an offer."

How can he be sure?

"I will make sure there is. My motivation is through the roof. I will not rest until I get it."

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