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The overlooked Ireland U20s lock who forged an unlikely Super Rugby Pacific career

By Finn Morton
Cormac Daly of the Reds offloads during the round one Super Rugby Pacific match between Queensland Reds and NSW Waratahs at Suncorp Stadium, on February 24, 2024, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Cormac Daly was working in an office this time last year. The Irishman had come through the U20s pathway back home and gained experience with Connacht and Leinster, but the lock appeared lost to the professional game.

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Daly, who answered Ireland’s Call at the World Rugby U20s Championships in 2017 and 2018, had come through the academy ranks with Leinster as a teenager and seemed destined for higher honours. But life and rugby don’t always go to plan.

The talent out of North Kildare Rugby Club, which is about 30 minutes’ drive west of Dublin, moved on from Leinster’s junior ranks to link up with Connacht. Daly trained with the Westerners for quite some time before they signed him as injury cover after COVID-19.

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But as Daly explained, “(I) never really got a chance I thought I deserved.” The second-rower was desperate for an opportunity to prove himself, but after a season with Leinster in 2022, Daly thought his professional rugby career was over.

“Being with Leinster, they have so much talent there now. Looking at some of the lads you’re competing against, James Ryan, Joe McCarthy, stuff like that,” Daly told RugbyPass.

“Lads are even fighting for a spot to get on the training pitch let alone to play a match for them so that’s probably why they’re so good.

“The most frustrating thing about it was I never really got a chance that I thought I deserved,” he explained.

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“If I ever got the chance that I know I’d take it and I’d know that I’d be good enough to push on.

“When you don’t get the chance that’s when you lose confidence in yourself.

“I kind of thought I was getting a bit old, getting a bit on. Probably thought I’d missed the chance to play at a high level. Thankfully it wasn’t.”

Daly packed his bags and left professional rugby behind. The Irishman had missed out on “a lot of experiences” to travel abroad with friends over the years and wasn’t going to let this one slide.

The Irishman left the “freezing cold” behind by making the move to Sydney, Australia. Daly wanted to focus on enjoying himself Down Under but found his way back to the 15-player game with Randwick in Sydney’s illustrious Shute Shield competition.

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Former Wallaby Stephen Hoiles coached the Wicks to the glory that season. Randwick brought an end to 20 years of pain by snapping their long-lasting drought with a 17-15 win over Norths in the big dance at Leichhardt Oval last August.

By all accounts, the celebrations were immense.

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Finn Morton spoke with ex-U20s lock Cormac Daly about leaving Ireland. (Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Daly scored one of Randwick’s two tries in the final and secured a match-sealing steal at the death to deliver the famous shield back to the suburb in Sydney’s east. It was a history-making display from the Irishman who had taken that first opportunity with both hands.

“I came over just to come over and enjoy myself and to live in Sydney,” Daly said.

“Randwick got onto me then and we’re just a great match for each other. I got on with all the lads there, got on with the coaches, got on with everyone at the club.

“The rugby is a bit different to back home… it’s a bit more running rugby.

“I think it’s worked out well for me. Then obviously we won the league, the Shute Shield last year.. that was pretty special as well.”

But that was just the start of Cormac Daly’s rugby journey in Australia. After once believing there would be no more chances in professional rugby, the Shute Shield champion was recruited by the Queensland Reds.

Daly has played six matches off the pine so far this season, including a more than 30-minute cameo against the Brumbies at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium in round six. The Irishman has already made his mark in a team that boasts plenty of quality.

“I do talk to some of the lads back home in Ireland… I’m over here, the weather’s unbelievable, getting a nice tan and stuff. They’re in the freezing cold back home,” he added.

“Not many Irish people get to play Super Rugby. It’s something cool that hopefully I can go on with now and something that I’ll look back on later in life as a pretty cool experience and not many people get to do it.

“You can probably count on your hands, on your fingers, how many Irish people play Super Rugby so it’s definitely something pretty cool.”

It’s true that Cormac Daly is the first Irishman to play Super Rugby for Queensland since international front-rower Peter Clohessy in 1997, so what you read next will come a bit out of left field.

Daly’s journey to the Reds is a full-circle moment.

Playing for the Ireland U20s side against Australia some years ago, Daly swapped jerseys with a young backrower on the rise. That man was Fraser McReight, as the pair spoke about recently. Daly also played against future Reds teammates Jordan Petaia, Tate McDermott, Liam Wright and more.

But that’s not all.

Queensland Reds boss Les Kiss coached an Ireland U20s side.

“To be able to work under him is a huge opportunity. To have someone of his calibre coaching, you’d be a fool not to want to be (playing).

“I’ve only been here a short time now and I feel like the last few months I’ve already gotten better and better. Every time I’m playing games now I feel like I’m getting better every week.

“Huge credit to the coaches… I’m just trying to hopefully fulfil as much potential as I can.

“It’s pretty special to be up north with someone like Les. He’s a great coach but first and foremost he’s a great man.”

Getty Images
Finn Morton spoke with ex-Ireland U20s lock Cormac Daly about his journey to the QLD Reds. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Daly is playing with a renewed sense of confidence in Australia’s Sunshine State of Queensland. The coaches back their Irish recruit to do a job, and the second rower has delivered during a series of performances in Super Rugby Pacific.

What that could mean for Daly’s professional career moving forward – having only signed a one-year deal with the Reds – remains to be seen.

But for now, Daly is firmly focused on this season with the Reds.

“When I was younger I was always told I was good enough to play.

“Even when I was involved with Leinster and stuff, I was always told I was good enough to be here.

“You kind of seeing now when I’m playing… it’s just getting a bit of self-belief. Definitely, hopefully I can keep pushing on our performance with the Reds and see what happens then.

“The coaches really, really give me a lot of confidence.

“As I said, it’s something that I never thought I’d be doing now so I don’t want to take it for granted. I’m trying my best and hopefully putting my best foot forward every time I get on the pitch.”

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Jon 1 days ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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