Ronan Michael’s embryonic rugby league career has been nothing short of remarkable.
From calling in sick at McDonald’s so he could trial for Ireland under-17s before even playing a competitive game, to spending time at NRL club Canberra and making his Super League debut, the Balbriggan-born forward has had a unique journey. Now he wants to build on last year’s Huddersfield bow and secure a World Cup place for Ireland.
Michael could never have imagined what would unfold when he arrived at what he thought was his first rugby league training session, but turned out to be a trial for the national juniors side. He made enough of an impression to represent Ireland before he’d played a club match, paid for his own flight to earn a contract at the Giants, and then ended up at one of Australia’s top clubs.
“It’s been a bit of a mad one and sometimes it seems a bit surreal what’s happened to me,’ the 20-year-old explained. “It’s been absolutely crazy and a bit of a whirlwind – I’ve managed to fit a lot in over a short period of time. It’s a huge year for me now and I’m hoping to put my best foot forward and play in the World Cup.”
Skipping his fast-food shift to try and impress the Ireland selectors turned out to be Michael’s ultimate Sliding Doors moment. He recalled: “I’d never played any amateur or underage games and when I turned up to my first session I asked which club it was and they said it was trials for Ireland under-17s, let’s see if you’re good enough.
“I was a bit baffled but I got picked and my first five games of rugby league were for Ireland. At the time it was just unbelievable, it was literally the best thing that had ever happened to me.
“One of the sessions before a game against Wales I was down to work at McDonald’s. But it was too important a session for me and I pulled a sicky. It ended up that one of the blokes that was at that Wales game helped me organise my first trip to Huddersfield.”
That was the summer of 2018, and Michael did enough at the Giants to earn a third year academy contract. It wasn’t long before his performances saw him earn selection for the senior Ireland side under coach Stuart Littler, and his rapidly-evolving career was about to take another unlikely turn in 2019. When an opportunity arose for one young Huddersfield player to spend a year on loan with leading Australian club Canberra Raiders, Michael was the one picked.
“Sometimes I ask myself how I ended up there, it was mind-blowing that they chose me – but it was an opportunity I had to take,” he said. “They thought I would be really suited to the experience, could go over there and play a year in the under-20s and really develop.
“I left in early January and intended to stay there the full year. I played in four pre-season trial games and did a couple of sessions with the NRL squad and all the players I’d been watching on TV, which was a bit mad again. There was an odd number of teams in the under-20s competition and we had the first weekend as a bye, but I was in the squad for round two against the Bulldogs. Then coronavirus hit and everything got cancelled.”
Michael had to move quickly just to get home, with the club helping him get one of the rare flights out of Australia. “I can’t give Canberra enough credit for what they did for me. I only had a sporting visa so couldn’t stay there and work, and nobody really knew what was happening at the time or how serious it was.
“I went to the airport in Sydney and the departures board was just saying ‘cancelled, cancelled, cancelled’ – it was pretty scary for a 19-year-old kid on the other side of the world. The borders were shut in a lot of Asian countries and I ended up going home via Sydney, Vancouver, Toronto and Dublin. It took about two days.”
Still contracted to Huddersfield but with academy rugby in England cancelled, Michael stayed in Ireland, playing rugby league, hurling and gaelic football while cleaning windows and gutters to get by. But when the Giants suffered an injury crisis he was handed his Super League debut against Wigan at just 19, the first native-Irishman to play in the competition since Brian Carney over a decade before.
“They got in touch with me in mid-September about coming back, I got the message on the Wednesday, did my last day job on Thursday and flew over,” he explained. “It was perfect timing – I’d won the All Ireland competition with Longhorns RL, had a good summer at home and there was now the chance to make my Super League debut.
“The match was a blur of adrenalin and excitement – it was a phenomenal moment for me and my family. If somebody had said to me in 2019 that I’d got to Australia, win an All Ireland and play in Super League I could never have believed it.”
On Sunday Michael featured in the Giants’ pre-season friendly against Leeds and is now eyeing further opportunities under new coach Ian Watson – and a possible World Cup spot for Ireland at the end of the year.
Michael added: “I’m hoping to get a few more games for Huddersfield and see what this year has to offer. The World Cup at the end of the year is huge for me, and the chance to play against Jamaica in Leeds – where there are big Jamaican and Irish communities – would be fantastic. There’s a lot of Huddersfield boys in the Jamaica set up too so it would be good to go up against them.
“But I’ve learned not to look too far ahead. I’m just trying to be a better player and the rest will look after itself.”