The Connacht-reared fly-half has been training with American Football coaches
When Tadhg Leader says he loves kicking, he ain’t joking.
“On Christmas Day, my brother and I would go out,” he begins. “We’d get balls and tees for Christmas and go and kick. I just love it.
“And I got pretty decent at it. Then when I got out to the United States, people were always telling me: ‘You should start kicking footballs’.”
And so, in the midst of a global slowdown thanks to Covid-19, that is exactly what the Connacht product began exploring. And then, with his Boston Free Jacks colleagues waiting to see how the next Major League Rugby season can be mapped out, the twice-capped Eagle headed for sunny San Diego for a few weeks, to hoof pig skins and try to catch the eye of American Football recruiters.
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It was not a straight shot to get to that point. Stories like this tend to meander.
Leader, by his own admission, fell out of love with rugby a few years back. After leaving Connacht in 2014, he would spend a short time in Boston and then briefly in the Italian game, before injury slammed him. Having never really fancied academics much, he did something out of character: he took a leap to move to the States long-term, to “the back arse of nowhere” in Missouri, to study at Lindenwood University.
Having seen some of the real world (albeit through the prism of full-time rugby) but still a young man, he thrived at college.
However, he was meant to play collegiate rugby when complications arose. Their system would not allow him to take to the field, due to his professional history. And so he began coaching. He realised he adored it. His rugby fire was rekindled.
He kept his hand in by playing locally. After his college days he would be stateside for the start of MLR, signing with San Diego Legion. The game kept presenting opportunities, leading eventually to two Test caps off the bench last year, against Chile and Canada. With all that going on, talk of pads and helmets was resigned to idle musings.
“The reason I didn’t explore this (side of kicking) before was that I was busy playing and coaching and then Major League Rugby was coming around,” Leader says. “I was going to become US eligible too.
“There was a real, tangible pathway there for me to get back into full-time rugby again. I started to enjoy the game again so I was like, ‘You know what, I want to give this another crack because I didn’t do myself justice (before)’. So with all that going on I just didn’t do it and thankfully the rugby stuff worked out for me.
“But due to Covid, again people said to try (Football kicking). So I messaged a guy who was a Football coach and said, ‘Hey, any chance you could give me a few footballs and I could give them a whack?’
“I met him one day, started kicking and he said, ‘S***, you’re quite good.’ I started looking at videos online to compare myself and realised potentially there’s something here. That was only a few months ago. I just did it to scratch the itch, to be honest. It snowballed from there, to then meeting some kicking coaches who said I could probably do this.
“So I was driving three hours to Connecticut to meet this kicking coach once a week, for maybe five weeks. And then to San Diego kicking at what is regarded as the number one spot for kickers in the country to be. Excuse me but I just said, ‘F*** it!’, because there’s nothing to lose. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t I’ll at least be happy I pursued it.
“And I’m kinda hooked at this stage.”
There is a familiar flight path for any American youth hoping to ascend into the NFL. But for the outsider, it’s more awkward.
Leader was told the first hurdle for him would be finding an agent to represent his interests. But after sending a few videos of his kicking out into the world, he was suddenly getting calls. He treated it as positive affirmation, and so he settled for a representative who already had a few interested parties. And there may be a few options as, with the NFL rules, there are exemptions on extra places in practice squads for foreign talent.
In Covid times, though, getting into NFL facilities for a trial is tougher. Leader has willingly jetted across the country from his New England base and back and will have to be prepared to do more of that in the future, should the demand for his services climb.
The NFL is attritional and there is a lot of horse-trading at the best of times anyway. Now in pandemic days, Leader says, you are only allowed five free agents in the building at any time, trying out. So it becomes a very selective process and in reality, kickers rarely get banged up. Yet the positivity has spurred the fly-half on.
He adds: “I’m hoping, potentially after Covid and when the (NFL) season ends and dormant players leave the building, there will be more opportunities to get myself in a facility and kick in front of them.
“I am 100% prepared to travel. When I came out to San Diego I decided I had to, to learn, so I said to my girlfriend, ‘Listen, I’ll see you in a week or two, we’ll see where this goes.’
“I’m (travelling big distances) already and that’s on my own dime, trying to spend it and learn. So if a team was to give me a buzz, that would be a no-brainer for me. I’m 28, which is obviously a bit older, but in terms of kicking it’s not a big deal.
“Interestingly, I was out learning with a guy called John Carney and he kicked in the NFL for 23 years. He went well into his 40s so he’s like the guru of kicking. So it’s cool to be exposed to all of this.”
Leader has clocked up plenty of miles in this time. Contributing in rugby coaching as well as squeezing in Football practices, he has built a good life for himself in Boston. He loves the idea of contributing more for the Eagles national team and also manages to fit in online work for a Masters degree. It’s worth noting that Leader says he has the blessing of the Free Jacks and he concedes that “it’s a pretty unique time that I can drop everything and do this”.
When told that he sounds like one of those players who hates sitting still, he replies that when he was in Ireland, his life was largely about rugby and nothing else. Now, when he talks to pals who are in and out of Pro14 sides, as good as it sounds, he has come to realise that there is a wider world out there and he would like to see as much of it as possible.
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As for MLR’s Boston side, he can see the power of bringing a multicultural group together, with Japanese international Kensuke Hatakeyama set to rub shoulders with New Zealand sevens cap Beaudein Waaka, Scotland cap Dougie Fife, Tonga’s Jack Ram and a sprinkling of South Africans amongst the US lads.
It’s great to be able to return to the group if there are no NFL takers, and he can see the hard work going in to build the club’s identity. Of course, there are no guarantees for 2021. As with the game all over the world, we hope.
All he can do is keep totting up the kicks – with the helmet on or not – and enjoy the journey. He is keen to kick on.
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