Between turning up to St Colum’s U16 training with protein shakes and wanting to train despite a broken wrist, Bantry’s gentle giant Fineen Wycherley was always determined to hit the big time. KIERAN McCARTHY looks at his ongoing rise
THE man who picked Johnny Sexton off the ground as easily as a child would pluck a daisy from their lawn always carried a physical presence.
When he played underage football with his local club St Colum’s, Fineen Wycherley manned the full back position.
He already stood out from the crowd. He was one of the tallest on the Colum’s team that captured U14 and U16 West Cork and county C titles. He was the anchor in defence.
Back then, as he juggled, football, hurling and rugby, Fineen was racking up the medals with Colum’s footballers.
He’ll admit he wasn’t the most gifted footballer. On that team the honour went to Connor Ellis, a future Cork City and Limerick FC striker who could jink his way through most defences.
Ellis and Wycherley: the unstoppable force and the immovable object. No surprise that both have progressed to bigger and better things.
Nowadays Fineen is both bigger and better. But what hasn’t changed is his attention to detail and his willingness to improve. Anyone who has coached him over the years, whether it was football and hurling at Colum’s or his formative rugby years at Bantry Bay RFC, will all agree that this West Cork force of nature is a perfectionist.
‘Where he did stand out is that he was always looking for feedback. He had a thirst for improvement, always wanted to get better and he’d take all the advice on board,’ says Tony McElhinney, who coached him in his early years at Bantry Bay.
Emmet Vaughan of St Colum’s GAA Club has the same memories: ‘He always looked after himself. He was the first I can remember who brought protein shakes to underage games! But he did things right. He was playing rugby and GAA then, and you could see that he took his rugby seriously. He wanted to go places.’
Bantry man Eugene McCarthy nods in agreement. He is a Munster Rugby Development Officer and also coached Fineen at club and provincial levels.
‘He always had potential and his greatest attributes are his attitude and that he works hard,’ McCarthy says.
‘Fineen’s attention to detail is second to none. He’d keep working on a skill until he was proficient at it. He was always looking for feedback, to see what he could do better and different. The difference between Fineen and others is that he applied that. Others would ask but he would apply.’
McCarthy adds: He never makes a big deal out of anything.’
Not even breaking his wrist in an underage game for Bantry Bay could halt Fineen’s momentum and desire to improve.
‘I remember when he was U15 he broke his wrist in a game on a Saturday and the following Monday night when we were doing gym work he arrived asking what other parts could he work on until his wrist was 100 per cent. That’s how he was when he was 14 or 15,’ McCarthy added.
Fineen was driven from the start. Nothing would stand in his way. Not a broken wrist as a teenager or the World Rugby Player of the Year Johnny Sexton as 21-year-old Fineen was keen to make his presence felt for Munster.
This gentle giant, who approaches everything with a smile, has a beast mode. He towers at six foot four inches. He weighs 18 stone. And he’s still growing and developing.
The man who was ready to catapult Sexton into the dark Limerick night sky during that PRO14 game at Thomond before the turn of the year, until Jack Conan’s timely intervention, set the tone in that derby with his big hit on Sexton. He laid down an early marker. Sexton didn’t appreciate it, and ripped Fineen’s scrum cap off his head and threw it at him.
Those giant Bantry hands paid no heed to reputations as he man-handled the Leinster star. Fineen didn’t take a step back. He took one forward. Showed he wouldn’t be intimidated. That’s impressive from a young man on the big stage.
Ronan O’Gara nodded gave his showing a seal of approval. He tweeted: ‘Well done Fineen. Just the new breed of animal we have all been dying to see.’
That list of admirers for the Bantry man is growing. Munster coach Johann Van Graan is a signed-up member. He gave Fineen his first start in the PRO14 away to the Cheetahs and his Champions Cup debut against Castres in December, as well as his blessing to the young versatile second row earning his first professional contract (two-year length) late in the year.
‘I think Fineen was excellent over the last few weeks,’ Van Graan explained after the win against Leinster.
‘I gave him an opportunity against the Cheetahs as a blindside flanker and he has impressed me so much throughout the last year.
‘I backed him for this game, he played blindside flanker against the European and PRO14 champions and I thought he was excellent. It was an 80-minute performance. He really stood up.
‘It’s brilliant for the club to show that our youth system works. In the last six months he is a guy who put his head down and worked; it paid off tonight and I am really glad for him.’
Hard work is something the current Greencore Munster Rugby Academy Player of the Year knows all about; an honour that recognised him as the best up-and-coming prospect in the province. He was never afraid to make the hard choices to further his rugby career.
When he was 16 years old, the GAA was packed in. Rugby was his first love and he gave it his full attention.
His father, Florence, from Hollyhill outside Skibbereen, lined out with his local rugby club. Matters of the heart, after he met his wife Catherine, led to a move to Coomhola in Bantry where she’s from. That became home to the Wycherley clan. Naturally, it was a rugby household. Very popular and always present.
One of seven, Fineen’s bang in the middle. Jason, Gary and Nathan are all older. Josh (a talented 19-year-old loosehead to watch and involved with Munster sub-academy), and his sisters, Latisha and Saskia, both younger.
There was no underage outlet for rugby in Bantry back then but that soon changed. His father Florence, Eugene McCarthy and Philip Walters set up the underage club. Fineen and his brothers all played, but as he got older and better, and was eager to push on, the numbers weren’t there in Bantry for training and matches.
This was 2015 and he needed to go somewhere else to play a higher standard of rugby. So, for his fifth and sixth years of secondary school, he moved schools and set up camp as a boarder in Cistercian College in Roscrea where his grandfather has gone. It turned out to be a great move. His first year there, Fineen helped Roscrea win the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. The following year they got back to the final.
‘It was good for me because I got to train and play a lot, the coaching and facilities were excellent – everyone was focussed on the one goal, to win the cup. Thankfully, we did in my first year there,’ Fineen says of that time.
The Bantry trailblazer was also progressing through the Munster underage ranks, helped the province win the U19 interprovincial title in the 2015/16 season, made an appearance for Munster A against Ulster, and soon he was in the Munster Academy and playing his club rugby with Young Munster. The former Ireland U20 international has been on an upward trajectory ever since.
‘Fineen is the modern player; he is comfortable on the ball and has great mobility around the pitch considering his size,’ Eugene McCarthy says.
‘I think at the moment when you are in the back five, you need to be able to play in a few positions to keep moving up. Look at Tadhg Beirne who is comfortable in the back row and the second row.
‘When Fineen was young and with Bantry, we’d always play fellas out of position. There were games where we would play Fineen in first and second centre, just so fellas would be forced to develop their skills and see the game from a different perspective. Even though Fineen was out of position he’d always look to do the job he was given as best he could. That was his attitude again: work hard, give it everything and learn as much as he can. It’s the same now.’
Fineen is determined to become a Munster regular. And he’s making the right noises. Nothing will stand in his way. Not even Johnny Sexton.