IT’S little surprise that the various goings on in Cheltenham didn’t go unnoticed for Fergus McFadden.
Growing up, as he did, in such close proximity to The Curragh, which is one of the main focal points for Flat racing in Europe, McFadden would have spent more hours than he cared to remember playing along the fields growing up.
“It was a great place to grow up and still remains one of the most beautiful areas in the country,” the 24-year-old reflected on the eve of Sunday afternoon’s clash in Newport.
“The great thing about The Curragh is that it can’t be built on, so while there are developments going on across Kildare and around the country, that unspoilt land will always be there.”
Inevitably, he was bitten by the equestrian and horse racing bugs and enjoyed Ireland’s record week in Cheltenham.
“Good old Ruby (Walsh), he came good for me on a few races on the first day alright, like the rest of Ireland it seems,” he grinned.
“I ended up with a few quid, but it’s not all about that and I wouldn’t be a huge gambler. Certainly, when I finish playing I’d love to get over to Cheltenham for a week because it’s one of the greatest festivals around. “You get people from all walks of life, some of whom don’t even seem to be interested in the racing side of things, but they’re all there to enjoy themselves and have fun.”
EMOTIONAL He still retains a strong emotional bond with the place and it will always be home. Though life has moved on steadily since his graduation through the underage ranks with Cill Dara, then being part of a succession of successful Clongowes Wood College SJ sides at schools level, to UCD, the Leinster Academy, the full Leinster panel and – more recently – Ireland.
The Ireland call-up, he says, was both a surprise and a thrill, and having tasted the Six Nations, he hopes to capitalise on future opportunities.
Over the past few months he has improved in many facets of what was already an accomplished all-round game, adding new strings to his bow, culminating in his first Ireland senior appearance against Italy in Rome. In 18 Leinster appearances his stock has steadily risen, but he is loath to believe that he has made it.
With big games coming thick and fast, starting this weekend, he knows that the high competition levels within the backline mean that complacency won’t come into the equation. As it is, he is craving games with his province, having enjoyed the fruits of his hard work with an international call up over the Six Nations.
“This Sunday is huge for us because we’re coming into the knockout stages of the season,” he says.
“We’re not looking any further than the Dragons because you can see by the way results are shaping every weekend that teams are taking points off one another.
“The Dragons themselves were quite unlucky to lose up in Ulster last weekend and they’re a seriously dangerous prospect in Rodney Parade.
“They have a very good back-row with pace and strength right across their side and because they haven’t lost that many players to the Welsh side, they are settled and are a side which can punish teams that have had less continuity. “Certainly, our experiences of playing them in the RDS or over in Newport are that we always seem to be in a dog-fight.
“They have become a very tough team to beat in recent seasons and it’s vital that we’re ready for the focus change back on to the league.
“Personally speaking, I do not have great memories playing there and after a three-week break all the guys want to do is get back playing at this stage.”
Momentum, McFadden estimates, is going to be the making of his side’s ambitions this year and he stresses the focus required if a prolonged assault is to be sustained in both competitions.
“Momentum is a huge thing for us because in the context of the league, we have to get into the top four.
“I have been impressed by the depth of our squad this year and over the coming months our resources will be tested. But I suppose the ability of the players to step up even in big European games has been a process that has built over recent years.
“The coaching staff have proven that they have trust in all of the players and there’s a good balance on things in that respect because Joe (Schmidt) would have a good feeler on what he wants to achieve, what we need to do and how best to manage the players.
“I enjoy the cut and thrust of week-in week-out matches because it helps me get into a bit of rhythm and if you ask most players I think they’d all say the same.
At this stage we just want to pull on the blue jersey again after what seems like an awful long time.”
Further proof of the regard in which McFadden is held was evident in him signing a new deal with the province in recent months.
“It’s hard to ignore things like your contract negotiations because everyone wants security but I suppose the two key elements from both sides were that the club wanted to keep me and I wanted to stay.
“Sometimes it can be a bit of a distraction for players, while it can inspire other players to dig in and play better, but I always knew that this was where I wanted to stay and I’m just delighted it’s all resolved.
“There’s a lot that can be said about the good environment that’s here at present and when you can retain the likes of Brian (O’Driscoll), Jamie (Heaslip) and Seanie (O’Brien), then that tells you that it’s a club with high ambitions.” Ambitions, indeed, that match his own.