Banbridge man Michael Cromie is hoping his move to professional rugby will be the gateway to a world of opportunity.
The 24 year-old has signed a one-year professional contract with French third tier side Stade Rodez as he bids to further his budding career.
Cromie left his boyhood club Banbridge a year ago, having spent 19 years at Rifle Park, before playing last season for Ballynahinch. He also played on the Ulster Ravens team last season and it was his exploits for his province that earned him the lucrative move to professional rugby.
“I’ve been playing in the Ulster rugby academy and I was looking for other opportunities for a year just to get into the professional game,” he told the ‘LEADER.’
“This opportunity came up to join a team in the top 40 professional teams in France and I took it. I have to take that option to get into the professional game any way I can. Whenever you’re in the Ulster set-up, there are agents who want you to join up with them. They do all the work and he found this deal.
“The club were interested so I went over to them to do a bit of fitness testing and to see round the place and that was basically it. I had video footage from the past year and they had a look over that. They were happy enough.
“They offered me the contract and that was the best thing I had on offer so I took it and I’ll see what happens from here.
“At the Academy and sub-academy, you’re not regarded as professional. You’re just in the system with Ulster so it’ll be great to move up to full-time. All I’ll be doing is playing rugby so hopefully I can take to it and I’ll how it all progresses.”
Michael’s new side is one with big plans for the future. If those are brought into reality, the Banbridge lad could be playing a lot closer to the pinnacle of French rugby in the not too distant future.
“Last year they finished third in this division,” he explains. “They lost in the quarter-finals of the play-off to the team that lost in the final.
“The coaching staff they have in at the minute have been there for the past two seasons. They have a two year plan from now to be just below the top 14 teams in France.
“They’ve made a lot of signings this summer already to help that. They’ve signed a lot of guys who have been playing in the league above so that showed me that the club means business if they are attracting players like that.”
And even if things don’t go quite according to schedule for Stade Rodez, Cromie is hoping that his move to the third tier side could prove to be a stepping-stone in his rugby career, leading to bigger and better things either side of the English Channel.
“It’ll be a different experience,” he said. “It’ll take a while to get used to it but the rugby’s good over there and the club is in the south, right in the middle of the rugby-country.
“It’s near Toulouse and all the big teams so there’ll be plenty of opportunities if things go well.
“I could have stayed at home and done another year in the Academy but it’s a step into the professional game. I’ll always have the option to come home or to England if I’m doing well and Ulster are keeping an eye on me.
“I’ll just see how it progresses or find out it’s not for me and come back to Banbridge. I have to give it a go though.
“I’m still learning at this stage. French rugby is known to be based a lot of forward play. It’ll be a great scrummaging test so it’ll bring me on that way if nothing else.”
For now, Cromie is confident that he’s making another step forward. This time last year, he transferred to Ballynahinch to play in Division 1A of the All-Ireland League and now he has moved another rung up the rugby ladder.
He said: “They’re getting anything between 3,500 and 5,000 for every home game and the set-up they have is first class. They have a full staff on board and it’s pretty similar to home in that regard.
“Those are the main sort of things I wanted to check out. I wanted to make sure the facilities were good and they are. The ground’s great as well.”
He’s not the only Irish export making his way to France this summer as Munster’s James Coughlan has joined Pro D2 side Pau. “He was involved with Ireland and is going to play in the league above us. That’s how close it is to the standard those boys are playing at,” said Michael.
The Banbridge man will leave his family, who are all heavily involved at Banbridge RFC, and fly out to France on the 19 July, ready to begin pre-season training.
Amid all the on-field preparations, he’ll also have to make time to brush up on his language skills.
“I’ve picked up a wee bit,” he said. “They’re sending me to conversation classes when I get out there so it’ll be good to get to know it all. I’m sure it’ll be easily put across if I’ve done something wrong anyway.”
So for Michael, it’s au revoir to Bann but bonjour to the next phase in another promising sporting career born in Banbridge.