Speaking to the42.ie Pro Rugby founder, Eoghan Grace discussed his experiences, career and transition into now running two businesses.
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Eoghan Grace’s CV includes time with Munster, Exeter, and Connacht, as well as a Grand Slam with the Ireland U20s, and he certainly understands how enjoyable professional rugby can be.
But the flanker learned about the tough times involved in the sport too, with injuries or non-selection meaning he was sometimes left on the brink of achieving more.
The 32-year-old spent the latter part of his playing career away from the limelight with English clubs Ealing, Coventry, and Plymouth – where he now lives and runs two companies that he’s sinking his experience into.
Grace has a not-for-profit community interest company called Eolas+, the name coming from the Irish for ‘knowledge’, which revolves around getting into primary schools and running holiday camps in the south west of England to give kids a chance to get involved in sport.
Grace has also very recently launched a new business named Pro Rugby Academy, which aims to provide “a second chance” for aspiring players who might have missed out on contracts with professional clubs.
“In Ireland, you always had players who would come to the end of the academy and not get a contract.” explains Grace, who came through Munster’s academy before moving to Exeter in 2010.
“Some guys would stay with their amateur club or drop down a few levels – the system is different here in the UK, obviously – but I could name you 10 lads I know who could have gone on and done really well in a Championship club or even Premiership club, but because they didn’t make the Munster or Leinster senior squad, they binned it all.”
“Each to their own, of course, but there still could be opportunities out there for players.”
Grace hopes his new venture can help players striving to make the grade in the UK, while he sees scope for helping players across the rugby world with online programmes.
As with every other business, the Covid-19 outbreak has made things difficult for Pro Rugby Academy just as it launches but Grace has ploughed ahead with those online programmes.
One of the cornerstones of the offering is on the athletic development side, with Grace having earned a BA in Strength and Conditioning through Setanta College during his playing career.
It’s an area where he feels his own lessons from pro rugby can help young players.
“I’m fully convinced that the way we were brought up in rugby – getting as big as you can or you won’t make it – isn’t the way,” explains Grace. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there is a size thing and genetics can be a bit of a hindrance.”
“But I’m now more rounded in how I look at S&C – your movement, how you get your speed from being functionally better at moving, rather than being robots who can lift a load of weights and then end up getting injured all the time because mentally you’re not there and physically you can’t cope.
“I’m probably the perfect model of what not to do because my hips are broken and my back is broken.”
“There are obviously hundreds of rugby players out there the exact same but, looking back, instead of focusing on mobility and reading up on that, I was too quick to go down the route of seeing guys putting on size and thinking I’d do that too.”
Grace grew up in Clonmel and excelled at golf and GAA before going to Rockwell College for secondary school and focusing on rugby, progressing up through Munster’s age-grade teams and on to that 2007 Grand Slam with the Ireland U20s.
“I’m happy to work hard at things,” says Grace of his determined approach. “Even with the golf, I used to spend 12 hours up at the golf club and not play one hole, just hitting balls.”
Advancing into the Munster academy, he reflects that “I probably didn’t know how well we had it” in that environment but says it was “a huge eye-opener knocking about with guys who had won Heineken Cups and played with Ireland and the Lions.”
He shone in the AIL with Shannon – helping them to their 2008/09 title – but never got the senior exposure he craved with Munster, leading to him taking up the offer from Exeter when the “different level” Rob Baxter came calling.”
Then-Munster boss Tony McGahan said Grace was “undoubtedly a player of immense potential” as they bid him good luck, but an Achilles injury destroyed the Tipperary man’s season in Exeter.
Fascinatingly, Grace wonders if injuries like that one during his career – and those of other players – are linked to mentality.
“I’m now a huge believer that a lack of mental skills can actually bring on injuries,” says Grace, who played in the Legends charity match for Ireland against England this year and in Bermuda in 2018.
“I went to a really good sports psychologist in Connacht, Marguerite Tonery. She opened my mindset to the possibility of self-injury as a safety net.”
“There’s almost that need to be wanted. If you’re sitting in the physio room, everyone is asking when you’re going to be back and in a weird way, you can feel wanted from that. It can be a toxic thing.”
A core part of Grace’s plan with Pro Rugby Academy is to provide mentorship to the young players who sign up, helping to build their mental skills – an area of the game that remains untapped in his eyes.
“When it came to self-belief, there were times when there was doubt in my mind and some coaches might drive that doubt home a bit more and it’s hard to get out of that cycle,” says Grace. “I’m not looking for excuses there, more trying to find the answers.”
After his one season in Exeter, Grace returned to Ireland to sign for Connacht and featured for them in the Pro12 and Heineken Cup during his two years in Galway.
There was further injury frustration and Grace often found himself outside the first-choice selections, meaning he learned another valuable lesson about pro rugby that can help him guide young players in his academy.
“It’s easy to get toxic. You’re on the outside if you’re not picked. You’re on the training squad or whatever you want to call it – the bin juice! You’re with other lads who can also be in a negative zone.
“You might ask a coach what you can do better and you’d work on that thing but you’d almost make such a big deal of that being your big thing to work on that you forget about other stuff you’re good at.”
In 2013, Grace moved to Plymouth, spending two seasons there before joining fellow Championship outfit Ealing, enjoying a stint as co-captain in Coventry, and then closing out his career back at Plymouth, while also coaching in the club’s academy and community programme.
“I jumped around from contract to contract, which is probably not the way I would have wanted it.” says Grace.
“But I don’t look back on my career and think there’s an excuse, that I got unlucky. You make your own pathway.
“There’s a massive amount of sacrifice to be at a good level, never mind an elite level.”
While continuing to expand Eolas+ whenever the Covid-19 restrictions begin lifting, Grace is also aiming to put all of his lessons from rugby into his academy.
Alongside the S&C, mobility and technical skills elements, he hopes to expand the mental skills and mentorship side, as well as adding in an analysis module to give players detailed feedback on their game footage.
“Ideally, once this lockdown is over, I can get a feel for where it can go. I’d really like to get more players across the world. We’ve actually got a guy from Argentina doing our programme at the minute and that’s an example of what you can do online.”
“Hopefully, I can pick on pieces across all of my experiences and bring them together.”