Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

By November 3, 2020 Rugby Thoughts
Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

‘I’m proud of what I did achieve. I’m completely okay with the fact that I think I under-achieved. I always wanted to play international rugby, always wanted to get 50, 100 caps for Ulster. That’s not the case and I’m completely fine with that now.’

Michael Allen is proof that, not only is there life after rugby, there can be a profound sense of freedom for athletes transitioning out of the all-consuming world of professional sport. Indeed, the sacrifice involved in playing high-level sport puts an enormous physical and mental strain on players.

For Allen, he holds no regrets and, although he believes he was capable of achieving more in his career, he is completely at peace with how things panned out.

Having moved from Ulster to Edinburgh in 2015, Allen’s career came to an abrupt end when he chose not to pursue a contract with another club when his deal in Scotland wasn’t renewed.

A versatile back with explosive pace, Allen was ear-marked for big things from a young age and was unquestionably cut out for high-level professional rugby. He is humble about his career but speak to people who played with him and they will assure you what a quality player he was.

He made the decision, however, to embrace life outside of rugby and appears to be thriving. Here, he discusses his journey into, and out of, rugby.

BenmoreWho or what made you passionate about rugby?

Definitely my dad. He had me at the rugby club from when I was a wee kid. His favourite story is bringing me to the rugby club at 2 weeks old. He brought me in the pram and the team were a man short so he said to a couple the wives at the side of the pitch, ‘would you look after him for a couple of hours?’ So, that’s what he did.

I was at the rugby club every weekend, I just loved the sport. I loved all sports to be fair, but rugby was the main one. It’s just a case of, without sounding arrogant, I realised from quite a young age that I was good at it so I could be better at it.

I remember my mum was a reasonably good tennis player and she tried to get me into tennis but I just didn’t feel like I wanted to be part of it, so I didn’t try all that hard to kick on in my tennis career. But with rugby, it was always the main sport.

From then, it just grew from playing mini rugby to school. Just playing every year you were getting better as a player and as a team. It definitely did start with my dad. If he wasn’t a rugby fella, I probably wouldn’t have been involved with rugby from such a young age.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Were there players that you looked up to growing up?

At that time in my life no, I didn’t even watch rugby. I loved playing it, but I didn’t watch the games. I have some memory in 1999 when Ulster won the European Cup, but I didn’t know about it, didn’t watch it, it was not really interesting to me. I loved playing it but not as keen on watching it when I was a kid.

So, there wasn’t an idol at Ulster or a superstar that I looked up to there. I suppose I grew up in the age where Jonah Lomu was the man, I remember seeing him and he was just a marvel. My earliest memory of rugby was probably that clip of him against England in the World Cup. I would have been about 5 but I do vividly remember watching it.

Also, my dad is a very good friend of Mike Gibson, obviously a British Lions man and an Ulster legend and he would have had me going down to his house and watching the Barbarians game against New Zealand with the greatest try ever by Gareth Edwards. So, no there isn’t a specific person I idolised, but I loved playing it more than watching it at that young age.

Tell me about your School’s Cup run. What was special about those years and the Methody team you were part of?

I think in terms of a school’s success it’s something that works in cycles. Coming out of rugby then hearing some conversations from guys still involved in schoolboy rugby it’s still just a case of cycles. One school will dominate for a while then that will change and on and on it goes.

For a long time Methody didn’t really produce any professional standard players who went to the Ulster academy, but they could have. They likes of, a few years above me, David Johnston and some of those guys were very, very good schools players but they went a different route, they pursued medicine or other careers and it’s kind of impossible to do both although I suppose there’s a few guys that do it.

From then there wasn’t really anyone coming out of Methody until Adam Macklin, he was the year above me, he was the next big thing. Then my final year in school – 2009 – the year we beat Inst in the final I think there were 9 of that starting 15 went on to play professional rugby.

I think there’s 8 of us all got caps for Ulster and then Conor Carey has got caps for Connaught. So, it’s just luck, it’s just the way it is. But we had a lot of those guys that played who were professional standard players who went on to play professionally but there was also a couple of others who, if they hadn’t have gone down a different route of studying they definitely could have been in the Ulster academy and played Ulster Ravens level and potentially Ulster senior team.

Guys like Harry Robinson and Stephen Leckey were great players. It was just one of those things, we happened to have a really good team. The 2 years, upper sixth were I was, and lower sixth with Paddy Jackson and that kind of crowd were all very keen on winning the School’s Cup wanted to be the best team about.

It’s all pretty much a professional set up in a sense, there’s skills sessions, there’s conditioning sessions. It was a great set-up at Methody but as I say it works in cycles – Methody had a number of good years, then Campbell and Inst and now it looks like there are other schools coming to the fore. In my time, we just happened to have a few really good years and I can’t put it down to anything in particular – I think it’s just luck.

A lot of young guys have come through the Ulster ranks in recent years, probably out of necessity more than anything, and have done really well. How important is it to produce local talent for the future of Ulster Rugby?

I think now there’s more opportunities for younger guys – they’re more keen to get them involved. Whereas when we finished school in 2009 the Ulster academy was definitely in its infancy. It wasn’t anywhere near as professional or as good as it is now. We had very good strength and conditioning coaches but there wasn’t much in the way of progressing skills.

There were a couple of skills sessions or team sessions but it was pretty much in the gym or playing club rugby whereas the kids now who were of the same calibre of the guys I came out of school with, they’re so much more ready to be thrown into the professional environment and just given a crack which is amazing.

It has to be done like that, that’s why these guys will not be phased by the big occasions whenever they’re playing for Ulster. 18 years old and in front of, I don’t know how many it is, 18,000 at Kingspan now? It’s great where the club’s going and whereas 2-3 years ago it was pretty dark times for Ulster and now, there seems like there’s been a lot of change. Of course, there’s still work to be done.

Dan coached me and he’s a bloody good coach, he’s a nice guy and I know Roddy Grant quite well and he’s a good coach. Other guys like Dwayne Peel has also been a good addition. The type of people they’re bringing to the club is great – people that really want it to succeed and have helped create a different atmosphere. I’m glad it’s getting better for them and getting better for the young lads coming through as well.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael AllenWhat was it like when you first stepped on the training pitch with the senior squad? How difficult was that transition?

I left school in 2009 then went into the academy, then I started playing quite regularly for the Ravens that season. I didn’t get my first Ulster cap until 2011. It was quite late – I was 21.

If I was to go back and give advice to my 17-year-old self, it would definitely be ‘you’re not just going to make it because of your school career and you’re not just going to make it because of the talent you’ve got – it takes more than that’. I naively came out of school and thought ‘God I can’t wait to play for Ulster, be the Man of the Match and be class’ but it’s just not the way it is.

So, I got my break in 2011 and then I didn’t get another cap until Mark Anscombe came in. I remember speaking to my agent at the time when he came in and I was like ‘you have to get me out of here, I need to go somewhere else, I need to play first team rugby, I don’t want to be stuck in the academy any more’. He just convinced me, he was like ‘listen, just stay on one more year. This coach wants young guys to play who can play multiple positions’. And right enough, Mark gave me a chance and I kind of ran with it for the guts of 3 years and I was involved fairly regularly over those 3 seasons. But yeah it was a strange old transition from school to play Ravens then to be in the gym and around the squad then not to play in the senior team for a long time, then playing club rugby.

I think that’s the whole ethos around schoolboy rugby players or academy players, the idea is like ‘right get them in and get them mingling so they don’t have that rabbit in the headlights feeling for their first big game’. It’s probably a good thing to get that exposure and time with the senior team early on so you get used to the environment from the outset.

Yeah, it must be tough going from school or academy games with barely anyone watching to playing in front of a massive crowd. Michael Lowry is a good example of someone who’s been thrown in at the deep end and he’s flourished.

Absolutely. Yeah from what I’ve seen, although watching Ulster is something I rarely do, but whenever I have seen games I’ve been impressed with him. He’s not the biggest guy but that doesn’t matter. He’s quick, he’s got his feet, from what I can see as a 15 he’s brilliant. He’ll just get better and better with more rugby games.

Other young lads, Rob Lyttle – he’s another one, I think he’s a bit older maybe 22-23 or something. Great player. Another young lad on the way is Robert Baloucoune. It’s class to see young lads being given chances. Whenever I was at Ulster I was stuck behind stuck behind Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave, Jared Payne, Nevin and Luke Marshall. Then on the wing it was bloody Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble you know, then Craig Gilroy I was like Christ when am I ever going to get a game?! That’s when I just learned how to play any position possible!

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael AllenWhat was the atmosphere like in the squad when you joined? What were other established guys in your position such as Trimble and Bowe like? Were they helpful or did they see you as competition?

They definitely taught me a lot. Not so much from them sitting me down and telling me this and that – it was more just watching how they would do something and you would try and replicate it, you would learn from that. Yeah, all the guys there, they knew their position, they knew they were established players, so they knew that I wasn’t going to come in and take their job forever!

But I remember one Heineken game, maybe the first year Mark was there. Trimble came up to me after the team meeting whenever we picked the team to play Leicester and he was like “I’m sorry Mikey” and I was like “Why? I’m on the bench, I’m loving it, I’m so happy to be on the bench” but he sort of said “look I’m sorry, you probably should have started” and to hear that from him, I was like “no Trimble, no way. You’re the man.” But they’re a good bunch of lads, always willing to help. You just learn from training and copying rather than them sitting down and trying to tell you. It was a good environment to learn in.

You said it takes more than just talent. What else does it take?

I think the mental side of the game is key. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. I wanted to play first team rugby straight away and I definitely wasn’t ready for it.

It was a real kick in the balls for me whenever I wasn’t involved and I didn’t get a cap and other guys around me were getting caps and doing really well. I felt ‘what am I doing wrong?’ So, it’s definitely important that you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You have to just keep going because it can be a very, very negative and pressurised environment. If you’re not getting picked you can develop quite a negative mindset.

Eventually, I was like just ‘get me out of Ulster, I don’t want to be here’. But my life’s dream was to play for Ulster, and I was willing to give that up and never play for Ulster because I was so intent on wanting to play first team rugby somewhere. It’s not just talent that gets you places because there’s a lot of talented players. You’re going into an environment where there’s talent plus experience plus more physicality plus better mental ability – the works. It takes time and I almost wish maybe I had the presence of mind to just see where I was because it would have been a wake-up call that I’m really not ready for professional rugby. But every person’s different, you can’t tell how someone will cope in that type of atmosphere – everyone’s different.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael AllenWhat were your ambitions when you started to play for Ulster? How hard was it to make the decision to move to Edinburgh?

For me, the goal obviously, as someone who grew up in Belfast and anyone that I’ve played rugby with, all our goal was play for Ulster, play for Ireland, that’s it.

Maybe 4 or 5 years ago whenever I was still at Edinburgh, I would have been very reluctant to tell anyone that I didn’t play for Ireland because I wasn’t good enough. I would have been really embarrassed to say that. But now being out of the game, realising that there’s life outside of rugby, outside the bubble, I can honestly say that I just wasn’t good enough and that’s it. And that’s ok.

I was a very good schools player but I didn’t take what I did in school into professional rugby. There was very few occasions, a handful of occasions where I was probably one of the best players on the pitch but you need to be one of the best players on the pitch every other game or every single game to play for Ireland. And that’s just… I just wasn’t that type of player.

The opportunity to move to Edinburgh was more brought on because I felt I’d outgrown Belfast, not in a nasty way but I just wanted to try something new and that’s what happened. Edinburgh came up and I was like I don’t know if I can go to Edinburgh to play rugby but then started to think ‘do you know what, this could actually be really good’.

It’s close to home rather than going somewhere much farther away. To play more rugby at one position was my goal rather than to play first team rugby. I’d been involved in first team rugby for a number of years, either starting or on the bench, in and around the squad but I wanted to try and stay at one position.

At Ulster I’d played wing, I’d played centre and the odd occasion it would be like the day before a match, I remember actually it was against Munster, a preseason game it was 2 days before the match and the coach said ‘Stuart McCloskey’s injured, you’re playing 12’. I was like right, I’ve never played 12 ever, bar in 2012 I think it was. I just couldn’t do that anymore – wondering ‘am I going to play 12, 13, wing’ – it was all a bit over the place.

I went in as a 13 primarily but then I ended up playing a lot of first year 11 and 13 then probably more games on the wing in my second year. So, it was more of a case of get out of Belfast, see what it’s like. Because it was a big move, even though we were only moving 35 minutes flight away it felt like a lot more. Looking back now I’m just so glad because we love the city, we have a Scottish daughter now, she loves it.

We’re both really, really happy. It’s probably in my opinion the best city in the UK. We could have moved to somewhere in England or down south in Ireland and had just as lovely a time and stayed and built a family there, but it was Edinburgh and that’s where we’re at.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael AllenAt the top level it’s bordering on obsession with the game, it’s hard for players to maintain a balance. How tough is life as a professional player trying to achieve that balance between rugby and a normal life?

There is no balance really. What I’ve realised is that you can really enjoy your life in rugby and outside of rugby but at the end of the day rugby takes over your life.

You’re told when to be in, you’re told when you’re leaving, you’re told when lunch is, you’re told what gym session you have to do which is all part of the job and everybody knows that so that’s not an issue at all, that’s just how it is and how it has to be to be performing.

But it’s more the life events that you miss because of doing the job. I don’t know how many weddings I’ve missed, birthday parties, stuff that happens on the weekend and you just have to say, ‘no I can’t I have to do my job actually, we’re playing’.

Coming out of rugby there’s more opportunity to plan ahead. We went on a ski holiday after I had stopped playing which was amazing just being able to do that because you’re not allowed to do that in rugby because it’s too dangerous. We came home and about a month later we all got together, my wife’s family, brother-in-law and his wife and the 3 of us were all going to a villa outside of Lisbon for 2 weeks in August and we booked that 6, 7 months in advance which you just don’t get to do when you’re playing – you can’t plan that far ahead.

So, yeah, it’s tough – there’s not much of balance in the sport and there is a real sense of freedom when you move out of the game.

Do you have any regrets about stepping away from rugby?

No, because of how the events that came about which resulted in me not staying at Edinburgh, it was a shock to myself and my wife. We were just like ‘it is how it is’.

It was late in the season and the options I had were just options I didn’t even entertain. Going to the championship in England, that was just not for me. Potentially going across to France to play, I could have done that because the clubs are really good, and you could live in a really lovely place in France, but I was just… it just wasn’t for me.

I finished professional rugby and I played for amateur for a year for a club in Scotland. They’re a great club, really good people, a good bunch of boys, good talent, good coaching but I knew right away that I was over rugby. It happened really quickly. I was just in a couple of gym sessions and I thought this is quite good then I got to the pitch session and I just realised I just don’t enjoy this anymore – I don’t like it.

So, I played to the end of the year. But I don’t miss it at all, and I don’t envy anyone still playing. I’m not bitter or I’m not jealous of anything which is really lovely. I was definitely jealous of everybody else’s success whenever I was playing, and I would feel like I wasn’t successful enough. But now I’m a fan of Edinburgh and Ulster and obviously Ireland in the Six Nations. It’s a much easier life for living, like I said about booking holidays and having flexibility with the kids and stuff like that. Not to say that my job now isn’t stressful because it is but it’s a different type of stress that you can try and adapt to.

I’m proud of what I did achieve. I’m completely okay with the fact that I think I under-achieved. I always wanted to play international, always wanted to get 50, 100 caps for Ulster. That’s not the case and I’m completely fine with that now.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Primal Fox FoodsWas there enough done to support you as you made the transition out of rugby? What were the stresses of being a professional rugby player and is there more that can be done?

Yes absolutely 100%. For me, I left rugby ready to leave, I wasn’t injured so I didn’t feel like I missed out. I left because I was like ‘right I’m done’. I was ready to move on and I was very fortunate to be able to move into the line of work that I’m doing and work for a company that took a shot on a guy who had life experience from being a rugby player and all the stuff that comes with it, the transferrable skills.

I had that so I was really ready to leave rugby and I knew that whenever I left rugby I wouldn’t be pining for it. Because I wasn’t a superstar, I wasn’t a household name so I didn’t feel like being a rugby player was my only identity whereas some of the guys that have come out of it recently with definite mental difficulties with leaving rugby because they are a much higher calibre of players.

I’m assuming, I can’t speak for anyone, but I’m assuming that they found it harder to transition because they were household names, they were the big superstars whereas I wasn’t. I finished rugby and a couple of days later I felt like a normal guy. I definitely agree that there should be more funding for mental health in all sports because it’s really brutal even though you can’t see it sometimes in people.

I experienced that recently in myself. I was taking quite a lot on myself with regards to work, just working away, head down. I felt, I don’t really know what, probably stressed, really just stressed.  After a conversation with my wife I felt instantly better.  I was putting stress on myself and she was like ‘why don’t you just knock that on the head for now and then do this’. Just a bit of advice after talking it over. I probably hadn’t realised it I kept everything to myself without knowing I kept everything to myself. It’s good to talk to people.

Sean Kennedy – a guy who used to play for Edinburgh, he put up a post a while ago about the funding level of mental coaches in professional rugby clubs. You’ve got your strength and conditioning, you’ve got your nutrition, you’ve got everything. Down at the bottom is the funding for mental awareness, mental coaches.

That’s a problem because sport is really tough at that level – it can put an awful strain on mental health. Yes, it’s a great environment because you do a job that you love and you get well paid for but the cycle of playing rugby, the stress and pressure is a lot to cope with. The stress starts whenever you play a game on Friday night. Before the game you’re stressed – I’ve got to play well, got to do this right, got to do that right, will I play again next week? You’ve got that stress coming up.

This is from someone who’s not a regular starter for every game. Some people who play for Ireland or who are more established know that if they have a reasonably good game, they’ll play next week. Whereas with the likes of players like me that had to almost fight every week for a full position it was, play the game on Friday then thinking ‘did I play well? I don’t know. Am I going to play? Jeez I need to find out, am I going play on Monday? Am I going to play on Monday? I don’t know’. Monday comes, right you’re playing on Friday. Great, happy days, I’m playing. But the cycle then starts the other way so then it’s ‘Jeez, I’d better get out there and play well on Friday because I need to play next week’, you know?

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Once you’ve got the media attention and you’ve got fans, people are expecting you to do well. I didn’t realise the stress of it at all whenever I played because I was a bit happy-go-lucky and I was young enough, I stopped playing at 26. But I felt like “oh I’m grand, this is fine” but coming out of rugby I realise that things are pretty heavy, they can get pretty tough. I definitely agree that more help needs to done there to support players.

When I left Edinburgh, I was the one that sourced my new line of work, I was the one that went and did exams and things like that. There was very little help from the SRU, not that I would have asked for it. It was offered in passing like ‘if you need something, give me a shout’. There was one lady who’s at Ulster, she worked with players and helped them out and was someone to talk to. I called her like “I have no idea what I’m doing, I don’t know how I’m going to make any money. I don’t think I can leave rugby behind, what do I do?” She was great, like a second coach, she felt like a psychiatrist. I was just chatting to her, giving her all my worries. She ended up helping me a lot, it wasn’t a case that she actually helped me get into the company that I’m in now, but she was someone who was there to listen to you. That’s so important.

But yeah, I think more definitely could be done. Like with me, what I’m doing now as a financial advisor, there’s some pretty harrowing stories of guys who have earned lots of money in their careers though different sports and within 3 or 4 years they’re completely bankrupt. They didn’t have any financial planning.

In a way, for people who retire, the biggest strain on their mental health is that they don’t know if they’re going to make money. It’s really scary and I feel quite lucky in a sense that I’ve come out and haven’t felt bitter or jealous or scared or anxious, that kind of way. I haven’t lost my identity or anything like that. Slowly I became the new me in the suit and tie sitting down with people and actually giving financial advice to help them. Whereas if you’d told me that 2 or 3 years ago you know, at 28 you’re going to be a financial advisor living in Edinburgh giving financial advice I’d have said “no way, that’s not what I’ll do, I’ll be playing rugby until I’m 35”. That’s really what I thought which was again incredibly naïve.

I think what could be done more is having a sounding coach for players to come and chat to about rugby but also about life and about what they’re scared about. It is hard to talk about it really but whenever you do talk it does make things easier.  I’ve had some experience of that, but I agree with you there, definitely more can be done to help players transitioning out of the game.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael AllenWhat are your predictions for Ulster?

Do you know what, I’m so far out of touch with rugby I get my rugby updates through the rugby pod which I love listening to with Jim Hamilton and Andy Goode. It’s fantastic, love listening to it, it’s good knowledge.

Whenever I do watch a game, I’ll look at a fixture and see who Edinburgh are playing and who Ulster are playing and try to see one of the games. For me, with Ulster I hadn’t a clue what they were doing and then they played that game in the Aviva against Leinster and I watched that and I remember speaking actually to Darren Cave when they were over playing Edinburgh, chatting to him about that and I was like “What are you doing, why are you giving up? You were unbelievable, I thought you were fantastic!” I watched that game and they were so close to winning.

That’s probably going to be the mantra for Ulster rugby now, is not just reaching quarter finals, semi-finals, but to compete for the Heineken Cup and to push on in the league. The margins are so tight, and it is just getting those extra few percent that will win you trophies.

I only won 2 cups in my time playing rugby. I won the 1872 for Edinburgh against Glasgow in my first year at Edinburgh so that was the cup I won and then I was part of the emerging Ireland tour that won in Romania so 2 cups.

We got to the final of the Pro 14 in 2013 I think it was and we got beaten by Leinster. But now with that young crop coming through who won’t be playing for Ireland – they’ll be playing for Ulster and getting their chance and, well, you don’t know what will happen, but these guys are stepping up and they’re extremely good.

I want to say in the next couple of years Ulster will win everything but I’m loyal to Edinburg as well! I don’t know what to say but from an Ulster point of view, but yeah, winning one of the cups will happen within 2 years. Ulster have to, looking at where the club is now.

Thanks Michael!

This interview took place over a year ago and, due to technical difficulties, I am only getting to uploading it now. Thanks again Michael.

Ulster Rugby Lad Meets… Michael Allen