‘I still firmly believe I’ll be back and good to go. I’ve unfinished business in the game’

AMID THE UTTER relief and delight shared by everyone inside the Sportsground, there was an added layer of emotion in that moment for Craig Ronaldson.

Connacht had just held off Cardiff Blues in a season-defining contest, a result which earned Andy Friend’s men a third-place finish in their Pro14 conference, and with it a place in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. 

Craig Ronaldson with Jarrad Butler after the win over Cardiff. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As is the case with the final home game of any season, the club’s departing players were honoured on the pitch at full-time, but lost in that tense and agonising afternoon, was its significance for Ronaldson.

The out-half, along with those who are moving on or have been moved on, was recognised for his contributions, but that was it. The end of six years in Galway, the place he had called home.

Ronaldson left the ground for the final time as a Connacht player that evening, knowing he would never get the chance to play for the province again, or run out through the Clan Terrace in the green jersey.

Told a number of weeks previous there would be no contract coming his way for next year, Ronaldson had time to come to terms with his departure before bidding farewell, but he knew he was not going out on his terms. 

Ronaldson wasn’t oblivious to the fact that a long-term knee injury sustained at the start of the season greatly reduced his hopes of being kept on, and when no positive news was forthcoming, the 29-year-old always feared the worst.

When Friend did eventually deliver his fate in the head coach’s office last month, it hardly came as a surprise to Ronaldson having spent the last seven months on the sidelines during the Australian’s first season in charge.

The timing of the injury, sustained during the closing stages of the Pro14 inter-pro defeat to Leinster back in September, was deeply unfortunate for Ronaldson, the damage so severe he is still in the midst of a long and complex road back to full fitness.

“That was one of the hardest things to take,” he tells The42. “I had just come on and with my first touch of the ball, had looked to step but got my leg caught and it jarred. I heard a crack. I knew I was in serious trouble.

“And then when you’re in the changing room and you see the look on the faces of the physios, you know it’s bad and there’s a long road ahead of you. The timing of it literally ruled me out for the whole season and you just never get a chance then.”

In his sixth season at Connacht, Ronaldson had come off the bench in the province’s first five Pro14 games, including on the opening day when he narrowly missed a long-range penalty to snatch victory off Glasgow Warriors.

Ronaldson suffered the injury against Leinster last September. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having damaged several ligaments in his knee, notably the ACL, Ronaldson was forced to undergo surgery almost immediately and this week returned to Santry for a routine six-month check-up to ensure there are no complications. 

“It’s a long process, there are no real shortcuts to it, no way of skipping any steps,” he says. “You’ve just got to tick every box and it’s a long slog, but it’s feeling really good.

“I’m back running on the pitch now a couple of weeks and doing change of direction work. That’s a big moment, getting the boots back on for the first time. It helps you a good bit and makes you feel involved.”

While Ronaldson’s initial focus and energy was channelled into the painstaking rehab process, working meticulously in a bid to build the strength back up in the knee, it was hard to maintain an unwaveringly positive mindset through those difficult days.

With Connacht enjoying a progressive first season under Friend, producing an expansive and entertaining brand of rugby, Ronaldson was forced to watch on at arm’s length, rather than being centrally involved in the dressing room. Training on a daily basis without the substance of matchday can often be a maddening mental battle for injured players.

And then, cognisant of the fact he was out of contract at the end of the season, Ronaldson knew his future at the club was now completely out of his control, the injury meaning he was powerless to convince the management he should be retained. 

“At the start you’re very much focused on your rehab and doing all you can to get back right,” the Kildare native explains. “A big part of the recovery process is actually the mental part of it, having that positive attitude and mindset that you will be back and fit. 

“You probably think about it more and it [your future] does play on your mind, but at the same time, there wasn’t anything I could do to influence it. It’s not like I was playing with my contract on the line, it was pretty much out of my hands.

“I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for them to let me go but they were very straight up. Andy is good at that. He has a real open door policy where I was being kept up to date with how things were going and then he told me, unfortunately, they weren’t going to have something there for me. It was hard to hear that, because I obviously would have liked to stay.”

While Ronaldson was able to overcome the initial disappointment, his release had more of an effect on family and friends, many of whom had shared the many memorable days in Galway. In six seasons, he made 67 appearances for Connacht, scored 307 points and was part of the Pro12-winning team under Pat Lam in 2o16.

Ronaldson made 67 appearances for Connacht. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

As his recovery continues and Ronaldson looks to hit the necessary markers along the way, the search for a new employer ahead of the 2019/20 season is well underway, with his agent, Niall Woods of Navy Blue, working behind-the-scenes to map out his next career step.

It’s always tricky, and often disheartening, for a player who has been out injured for a significant period of time to not only deal with becoming unemployed on the back of it, but then to remain optimistic in the hunt for another professional contract.

“If this happened a few years ago, I think it would have affected me a lot more,” he says. “I’m a lot more mature now. Yeah, it’s a major disappointment, but at the same time you have to look at it as a new opportunity.

“I’m at the stage in my career when a new adventure might be good. I just have to get back now and I think what I’ve done with Connacht and the experience I’ve built up, I can bring that to another dressing room. You have to get over it pretty quickly because it’s just part and parcel of the job.” 

Even though his future remains up in the air, and the concern of family and friends will only grow as spring turns to summer and the new season approaches, Ronaldson, having arrived in the professional game late, is confident he still has a lot to offer.

His route to the top was the road less travelled, but his success an inspiration for young players who initially suffer a setback, as Ronaldson earned a chance with Connacht on the back of his standout performances in the All-Ireland League for Lansdowne.

His first professional contract arrived at the age of 23, having helped Lansdowne to AIL glory as their leading points scorer, and Ronaldson made an instant impact out west under Lam, making 13 appearances in his debut season at the club.

Among the standout moments was the famous European win over Toulouse at the Sportsground in 2013, Connacht’s first victory at Thomond Park in 29 years as Ronaldson started in midfield alongside Bundee Aki, and then, of course, the Pro12 final defeat of Leinster at Murrayfield.

Although Ronaldson actually missed the final with an ankle injury he suffered in Connacht’s title run-in, the memories of that magical day in Edinburgh will forever stay with him, as will the Pro12 winner’s medal.

“When I first got my chance to come here from Lansdowne, to think I would be there for six years,” he continues. “I would have bitten your hand off. Luckily it worked out and I managed to play a good few games here and had a great few years. I’ll be very proud to look back on all that. 

The out-half scored seven tries for the westerners. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

“First coming down I wouldn’t have been too sure about my ability for this level. I was just trying to prove myself and you have those initial doubts. I found out pretty much straight away I could play at that level and add value to the team. I had a real shot at it and I’m appreciative of it all. I’ve had six great years at Connacht. Memories for life.”

But, now, the next chapter. 

“Yeah, that’s it. I have to look forward and stay positive. I’m still very much looking forward to what’s to come. I feel there’s still a bit left in me. I still firmly believe I’ll be back and good to go. 

“I don’t want to see this injury as my last time in rugby. I would be fairly annoyed with myself if it was the last time I was on a professional rugby pitch. I’ve a lot more to give.

“I feel like I’ve unfinished business in the game.”

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