“To be honest, I’m pretty speechless,” Michael McDonald says cheerfully with a distinct Louth brogue.
The 19-year-old from the Cooley Peninsula has had a whirlwind couple of weeks.
In early April, he made his senior debut for the Western Force as a replacement in their 42-10 victory over the Asia Pacific Dragons in Global Rapid Rugby.
14 days later, he was lining out in gold colours as he was sprung from the bench to make his international debut for the Australia U20s in their 64-14 victory over Japan in the opening round of the U20 Oceania Championship.
View this post on Instagram
The scrum-half then went on to captain Australia in their next outing a few days later against Fiji where he kicked 11 points en route to a 16-0 win before rounding it all off by starting against New Zealand in a 24-0 victory which put a stop to the Baby Blacks’ dominance of the Oceania Championship after winning the four previous editions.
“I mean every time something came up I didn’t really know what to say,” McDonald tells Pundit Arena.
“It was obviously always a dream come true to do all the things; to make my senior debut and then play for the U20s. And then winning the Oceania made everything a bit sweeter.”
But how did a 19-year-old from Co. Louth end up on the other side of the world playing for Australia?
Well, like many families throughout Ireland, the economic downturn in the first half of this decade resulted in difficult circumstances so the McDonald household made a decision to move to Perth to start a new life.
“So my parents own a surveying business and obviously with the economy in Ireland back then, it was pretty grim. So [we] packed everything into a container ship and jumped across the ditch to Australia and never looked back.”
McDonald was just 13 when his whole life was uprooted to a different country but like his attitude towards rugby, the youngster reflects on that potentially turbulent time with incredible positivity.
“I’m lucky in that I have a twin. That also made the move a bit easier, going to school and stuff, you always have someone with you!
“When we first came here we just thought it was the coolest thing ever. You always see Australia on movies and TV shows and you have this fantasy about it. It was everything we thought it was going to be. We’ve just loved it ever since.
“We’ve got a really good bunch of mates in rugby and outside of rugby and obviously joining Palmyra rugby club, there was a bit of a family culture down there. That made the transition even more easier for my whole family coming to Perth.”
There are two sets of twins in the McDonald household, there are Michael and his twin, Andrew, and an older set, Cillian and Gearoid.
Growing up, there was no shortage of inspiration in what McDonald describes as a “rugby-mad house”.
His father, Andrew, won a Provincial Towns Cup medal with Dundalk RFC in 1987 as did his older brother Cillian in 2011.
Both Gearoid and Cillian have played rugby at AIL level with Lansdowne and Old Belvedere.
“Yeah, I grew up with four brothers so it was a rugby-mad house. Dad was rugby-mad too and all of Mam’s family are big influences in Dundalk Rugby Club. We used to spend every weekend going up to the Leinster matches. We were season ticket holders.
“Some of my fondest memories were when Leinster beat Munster in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup at Croke Park. That’s one of my favourite memories of watching Leinster growing up. Just a rugby-mad family. Every weekend it was just rugby, rugby, rugby.”
McDonald played with Dundalk from minis level up until U13s which was when he moved to Western Australia and the memories of rocking up to the club on the Mill Road on wet Wednesday nights for training and the family atmosphere of game-days on the weekend are ones which he will cherish forever.
“I used to go in every weekend to watch senior rugby, loved that place to bits. Used to spend every Wednesday out there training in the freezing cold, I’ll never forget it! Loved that place and it’s a pretty special place in my upbringing and obviously, developed me into what I am now today.”
“It obviously gave me my first love for rugby and that’s where it all really starts and having a really good bunch of mates. They’re where I am from and obviously being from Cooley itself, we had quite a good group from Cooley who played with Dundalk.
“I just used to love going in there every Wednesday and then every Saturday going to all the different carnivals every weekend and playing all the different games, watching my older brothers playing for Dundalk growing up, obviously, I always wanted to play senior rugby for Dundalk and thought it was the be-all and end-all but yeah, just loved it, absolutely loved it.”
Like many rugby players in Ireland, the oval ball wasn’t the number one priority growing up. McDonald’s favourite sports were Gaelic football, where he played with Cooley Kickhams, and golf. In fact, he had a handicap of 10 when he moved to Australia as a 13-year-old.
He credits football to developing the skill of being able to kick off both feet, a highly desirable trait in modern rugby.
The early path which McDonald travelled is quite similar to that of Ireland internationals, Rob and Dave Kearney. The Kearney brothers, like McDonald, are from Cooley and have played with both Cooley Kickhams in GAA and Dundalk RFC.
However, when McDonald moved to Perth, that’s when golf and Gaelic football ended, as he explains:
“I joined ‘Paly’ [Palmyra] rugby club and obviously, there was no Gaelic football out there so that sort of went out the window! Instantly, I fell in love with team sport. Playing golf out here is a bit tough because you don’t know anyone and it’s more individualised and that’s why I love team sport. I made some really good friends when I first came here and I still have those friends at ‘Paly’ rugby club.”
McDonald’s pathway to where he is today came with representing various age-grade sides including the Western Australia U19s and the Western Force U20s but he earned national recognition in 2017 when helping his club Palmyra to the Colts Premiership title.
While in the U20s setup with the Western Force, a career-defining decision took place, moving from his original position of out-half to scrum-half.
“I’ve only been playing scrum-half for about 18 months now. Just under two years. I only made the transition about 18 months ago and loved it ever since. I played number 10 all the way before that, all the way through juniors and loved that too. But then, yeah, made the transition to scrum-half because a coach suggested it and it’s a decision that I’ve never regretted.”
When McDonald was playing with the Western Force U20s, his coach at the time believed his attributes would be better suited to nine and it’s certainly a move which worked out as he was then included in the former Super Rugby club’s Academy, ‘Future Force’.
McDonald is humble when asked about his strengths as a scrum-half and he is keen to develop all aspects to his game as he cites Aaron Smith’s passing ability and Conor Murray’s box-kicking as the standard-bearers in world rugby.
“To be successful and to get better, I think you’ve got to look at half-backs from both the southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere. So I don’t really have one specific one but obviously, you look at a guy like Aaron Smith whose passing is exceptional and then on the other side of that you have Conor Murray in the northern hemisphere whose box-kicking is also exceptional so I think you’ve just got to take a bit off each player and try to base your game around that.”
When the Western Force were axed from Super Rugby in 2017, it led to outrage, not only in Australian rugby circles but across the world.
That decision was gutting according to McDonald but he credits with how the club bounced back and ensured that players in the region have a pathway to the highest level in the game.
The 19-year-old’s development and success in recent weeks is a testament to that.
“Absolutely gutted. But I think pretty soon after that [decision] the Rugby WA president and the Future Force Academy head coach made it pretty clear to us that there would still be a pathway here in Western Australia and that it would just take a bit of time for the franchise to regather itself and start again.
“But I think from that day they really reassured us that there would be something here and there was still a pathway for us young lads to come through and make that transition into professional rugby.”
McDonald is certainly on track to achieve that but the number one priority now is the U20 World Championships in Argentina in June where a pool match with his native Ireland awaits in what will naturally be a very special and emotional occasion.
“Yeah, look, I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t really know many of those lads, I was too young just to get into the whole rugby scene before I left Ireland. But yeah, it’s going to be pretty special I think and just really looking forward to it. I think it will be a special moment.”
The McDonald clan were out in force in the Gold Coast in recent weeks where Michael excelled in the Oceania Championship and he reveals his father and older brother will travel out to Argentina in a few weeks time to offer their support.
If it hasn’t happened already, McDonald’s future, and whether that will be in the country of his birth or his adopted home, will undoubtedly be discussed especially when he potentially lines out against Noel McNamara’s Ireland on Saturday, June 8.
In fact, the Ireland U20 boss has been keeping an eye on the Louth man and he spoke about him this week when he announced his squad for the upcoming World Championship.
“He’s a good player, there is absolutely no doubt about that,” McNamara said on Wednesday.
“He’s a big, physical player. He’s a good player. There is absolutely no doubt about that and he is a threat we will be looking to negate over the course of the next couple of weeks.”
In recent years we have seen Irish qualified players from abroad make a move to the provinces in the hope of representing Ireland at international level with Kieran Marmion being an early example of this while this season, the likes of Mike Haley and Billy Burns made the move to Munster and Ulster respectively ahead of the 2018/19 campaign.
The programme is known as IQ (Irish Qualified) Rugby and McNamara reveals there was an “awareness” of the 19-year-old.
“There is a strong IQ programme and they keep track of players all over the world. There was an awareness of Michael.”
In terms of any contact from the IRFU or IQ Rugby, McDonald can’t recall anything.
“To be honest, I don’t think so.
“Yeah, no one has ever contacted me but who knows.”
The ultimate goal for any aspiring young rugby player is to secure a professional contract and once the small matter of the World Championships is out of the way, that will be McDonald’s focus.
“Obviously, getting through this World Cup is my next main focus but then I think professional rugby is always something I really dreamed of and obviously, it would be a dream come true if it did happen with the help of God.
“Yeah, look, that’s just my next goal. Obviously, there’s a load of time and there’s still a lot of hard work to do until I get there. Hopefully, I will one day and it would just be even sweeter I think.”
And if an offer came from an Irish province, would that interest McDonald?
“I think so. Professional rugby at the end of the day is my goal, if it’s fitting, wherever it may be, I think those things will look after itself.”
No doubt a big future lies ahead.