Former Ulster hooker Niall Annett has urged young Irish talent to look abroad for contracts rather than be satisfied with bit-part roles as part of wider provincial squads in the PRO14.
Annett won 20 caps for Ulster before recognising that he was on the verge of being “spat out” of the Irish professional rugby system. His decision to join Worcester Warriors, who were then in the RFU Championship, has paid dividends, with the 29-year-old having now amassed over 100 caps for the side, the vast majority coming in the Gallagher Premiership.
Speaking on the Telf Rugby Podcast, Annett said he hoped that other young players in the Irish system followed his path instead of resting on the glory of the odd senior cap.
“Do I feel regret that I’ve had to leave Ulster? Yes, because I’m Ulster born and bred. I’m very passionate about Ulster, even now, when I’ve left,” Annett told the podcast. “Have I grown as a person for having to leave? Undoubtedly. Life’s very easy when you’re in Belfast.
“I’ve had to struggle since I left Belfast, which has done me a huge amount [of good] as a person, but also as a player. As a player I’m better than I could have ever been had I sat at home and waited.
— Niall Annett (@NiallAnnett2) March 16, 2021
“In pro sport you get offered things once. If you’re very, very, very lucky, you get offered it twice. At the time that I was offered something I wasn’t ready or mature enough to take the opportunities that I had to.
“I feel very settled with the decision I made because if I hadn’t have left I would have been spat out of the game.”
“I would have been playing All Ireland League rugby, which wasn’t good enough for me.
“The thing that you need to be conscious of is that when you make that decision, I had reached a ceiling in the All Ireland League. I was getting the occasional game for the Ravens as it was back then, or the Ulster A I think it is now. I was getting even less appearances for the senior Ulster team.
“When I left Ulster I think I had just over 20 caps. For me, I look back on that and that’s p*** poor, but that’s just my mentality.
“When you reach the point where the rugby that you’re playing no longer serves its purpose, and I’m in no way having a crack at the All Ireland League or the lads I played with, who are good mates at Belfast Harlequins, who I chat to and who any time I’m home, I go and see. When I made my decision that I was going to be a professional rugby player, and I had reached my ceiling there, the decision was easy for me.
“Had no more to do there without being given guaranteed quality game time at a higher level.
“So when you’re handed that opportunity and given that decision, you’ve got to back yourself, and I want to see more people make the brave decision to leave for good clubs in England.”
Annett had some direct advice for young players stuck in academy contracts with only faint prospects of progression within a provincial set-up.
“You have to acknowledge where you are. You can’t live in fantasy world anymore. I could easily have stayed at Ulster and could easily have been rocking around Belfast going ‘I play for Ulster’, wearing all my Ulster tracksuits and living in fantasy land.
“But the reality is you have to decide ‘Is this something I want to do’ and ‘where do I want to take this?’ To a 20-year-old two to three years on an academy contract, I’d say ‘What’s your progression path? What does your ideal scenario look like and how do we work towards it?’
“Mine was always to play for Ireland, which now looks dead and gone.
“I want to see more people being brave. I don’t want to see Niall Annett from seven years ago playing in the All Ireland League anymore. He’s playing but he’s actually regressing as a player. I want to see him playing in the Championship, where I got my head kicked in for a full year. But it was the best thing I ever did because my progression went from being a gritty, Ulster A player who can do a job for the seniors to being a professional, playing at Worcester in the Premiership.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now