He’s used to anchoring scrums and smashing into tackles, but these days Ronan Loughney’s line of work requires a rather more delicate touch.
The former prop forward retired from rugby in 2017 and has spent the past 18 months establishing his own furniture-making business.
The transition, unsurprisingly, hasn’t been seamless for Loughney, who made 191 appearances for Irish province Connacht.
Upon stepping away from the game, he had a raft of wider-world experience already under his belt: an iron-mongering course, a business degree, a diploma in Irish, and experience working in real estate, not to mention everything 12 years of professional rugby can teach you.
Yet despite his colorful CV, he remained undecided about his long-term future.
“It’s been a bit of a leap of faith from myself,” Loughney tells CNN Sport. “Even though I’d spent 12 years while I was playing considering what I was going to do and trying to do bits and pieces on the side, I still wasn’t 100% sure when I finished.
“I’d always done woodwork and it was a hobby on the side — making different bits of furniture and stuff like that over the years. What I’m in the middle of is setting up my own business doing bespoke furniture for people and commercial fit outs.
“The furniture we’re building is mainly hardwood furniture. We mix that with industrial steel or a tubular steel. It’s not quite upcycling, it’s a bit more refined than that, but that’s kind of the style we work off.”
Swapping rucks and mauls for hammers and saws hasn’t been straightforward, but what’s motivated Loughney throughout has been a love for his craft.
“It’s something I’m really, really passionate about,” he says.
“I was saying to my wife that some days I go down to the workshop to work on something for a client and I’m pinching myself because it’s something that was a hobby. I won’t speak too soon but hopefully I can make a living from a decent livelihood to support me.”
Entrepreneurship is nothing new for Loughney. While still a player, he started making photo booths for wedding hire alongside a recently-retired teammate. Evenings away from training were spent building the booths and having them sent around the west of Ireland.
“That was my first foray into entrepreneurship,” he explains. “It gave me an appreciation of how hard it is to make money when you’re solely reliant on a new business for an income.”
Loughney has always been a big advocate of players broadening their horizons beyond rugby. He says his early business endeavors were the times he played the best rugby of his career — a period that saw him earn an Ireland cap.
“Whilst I was playing I was always conscious to do more outside rugby. You have so much free time as a sportsperson. Physically your recovery is important, but you have a lot of time for study or that kind of thing to further your education.”
Loughney was an executive board member for the Irish Rugby Union Players Association (IRUPA), now called Rugby Players Ireland.
The organization has an employee embedded within each of the country’s four provinces whose job is to assist players with life away from the game, including education, future career paths, community engagement, financial advice, and mental wellbeing.
“The aim has always been to be the best players’ association in world rugby and to make Ireland the best place to play rugby,” says Loughney.
Deirdre Lyons has been working with Loughney’s former team Connacht for the past five years, and this is her first year fully-integrated in the club with improved access to players.
Her responsibilities, she explains, are wide-ranging, providing confidential support to every Connacht player from the teenagers in the academy right up to the most senior members of the first team squad.
“It could be budgeting, working with a nutritionist on where they spend their money on food, cooking skills on a budget, that sort of thing,” Lyons tells CNN.
“Then with the senior players, it could be pension advice, investment advice … understanding what a pension is and why you should take one out, just encouraging them to shop around and get the best deals.”
Lyons says the area that has developed the most in the past five years is mental health support.
Rugby Players Ireland has introduced a “Tackle Your Feelings” campaign which uses players as a platform to promote mental wellbeing, although Lyons admits it can be difficult to get players to speak openly.
“Certainly in the past five years I’ve seen a huge change in the culture of players coming forward looking for support,” she says.
“Players themselves coming out and saying they’ve accessed support has helped. It breaks down that stigma a little bit but it is still there unfortunately.”
Preparing for the exit
Lyons regularly liaises with other rugby welfare bodies around the world, as well as football’s global players’ union FIFPro.
Her career advice can be as simple as arranging community work or volunteering opportunities for players. Part of this is about experience, and part is about engaging with the local community — connecting with people and building your brand as an athlete.
Social media also plays its part: “There can be players who are not that well known but are well known on social media because of their interactions, hopefully in a positive way,” says Lyons.
For the younger players, guidance from player development managers largely focuses on continuing your education alongside your rugby career. Having a Plan B is essential.
“We’re really preparing them as soon as they get in for the exit,” Lyons explains.
“Players who come in the academy, there’s 20 at any given time. Only three or four of those will get a professional contract. Others will have to go further afield or to different clubs and others will just be released.
“We would say with every conversation, ‘What’s your Plan B? If rugby was to finish in the morning, what’s your Plan B?'”
The same is true for senior squad members. Most first team contracts are only two years, so a player’s long-term future is rarely secure. Then there’s the question of injuries.
Loughney was very aware during his playing days that injuries have a ruthless habit of bringing rugby careers to an abrupt end. In his first year as a pro, he suffered two serious knee injuries; one more and it could have been game over.
“I had the fear of God in me from the outset because I knew I was one injury away from being finished before I started,” he says.
“I know a lot of other guys back then when you signed that professional contract you were on easy street; you were living the dream because you were being paid to play rugby which is a great thing.
“You’re reminded every year how fleeting it can be. Every year there’s guys retiring through career-ending injuries and concussions — it can all finish pretty quickly.”
Staying in the game
Mentally, injuries can also take their toll on a player. Having hobbies or work experience to get stuck into on the side can prove invaluable.
Connacht player Eoin McKeon, for example, has been sidelined with a shoulder injury since the first game of the season.
“It can be a bit crap at times when you are injured and you do feel a bit disconnected, but that’s why it’s important to have stuff outside rugby to get that balance,” says McKeon.
For the backrow forward, that includes a degree in chemical engineering (he graduated in 2014), work experience at a financial advisory company in Dublin (“it’s quite easy to get a taste for it and say, you know what, that’s not for me,” he admits), and an MBA, for which he has just sat his first exams.
As for his long-term injury, McKeon confesses that “you do feel a bit disconnected” from the squad, but says Connacht works hard to keep the injured group of players integrated — through rehab sessions, analysis sessions, team lunches, and dedicated times with the coaches.
The goal for McKeon is to get back to playing as soon as possible, and then to keep playing for as long as possible.
“If the body held for another 10 years, I’d happily take that but it’d take me up to 37 now; I don’t know if I’d make 37,” he says.
“Chatting to lads who finished up last year and the year before, they all miss it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the lifestyle I have now. That’s why I want to play for as long as I can before I have to go and get a real job.”