Pre-season training. I was feeling good about myself for losing half-a-stone until I came here. It’s like somebody has sprung the staff from the Abercrombie superstore; it’s all shirts off and tanned muscles out the back pitch in Sunbury, a vulgar display of good health and athleticism.
Fly-half Ian Humphries is leading a drop-goal competition from far out on the sideline, everybody is getting involved and pretty much everybody is there or thereabouts with their long shots. Today, everything seems possible, nothing out of reach.
The atmosphere is carefree but, of course, you don’t get to be in this condition without a serious amount of work. And still at it as the three-quarters shoot for the sticks is a small group of forwards, running across the pitch, over and back, over and back, in the searing heat.
Jamie Hagan is among that number. In town a matter of weeks en route from Leinster, he is determined to make an immediate impact with the Exiles.
As the tighthead admitted previously, when he arrived at Leinster from Connacht in 2011 he wasn’t in the best possible condition.
“I’ll never make that mistake again, especially coming to a new club,” he says a few minutes later, sitting in the stand. “You have to impress straight out of the blocks. There’s no window for slack. You have to be on your toes the whole time.”
Hagan is a laid-back guy, quick to joke but you can get a sure sense of urgency when he discusses his rugby.
He’s 26 now, not far off the midpoint of his career. His 123kg frame filled an Ireland shirt for the first time this summer – against the USA in Houston on June 8 – and the experience has left him eager for more.
“To put on that jersey for the first time, my God it gives you serious motivation,” he says. “My motivation has been unbelievable since I’ve come back. Once you taste it, it can’t come quick enough to wear that jersey again.”
The path from the Premiership to the Ireland squad is notoriously unforgiving.
Hagan takes encouragement from the exploits of Leicester’s Geordan Murphy and Tommy Bowe who was a regular during his long stay with Ospreys, even if their presence in the Rabo league meant he was on the radar.
No forward has held a regular Ireland berth while playing in England since Keith Wood. Hagan, though, feels the prejudices in that regard could be history.
“I had a good chat with Joe [Schmidt] before I left. If you’re playing well and you’re playing week in week out, and you’re starting, I don’t think he has a problem with selecting players from outside of Ireland.”
With the Ireland door open, the move to south-west London became a logical one to make.
“Last February, I had a chat with Brian [Smith]. He was very interested in getting me over. I’ve been playing in the Rabo for the past four years. I wanted a new challenge.
“It sort of intrigued me, to play in the Premiership. It’s a massive scrummaging league, you’re going to be tested week in week out, which is great. Mike Ross was over here for three or four seasons when he played for Harlequins, and he developed into a world class tighthead.”
Tighthead prop has developed into the most important position on the pitch. “So we keep hearing anyway,” laughs Hagan.
It’s a complicated role that requires brute strength, deft co-ordination and a fast brain. When something is out of sync, the consequences are simple and devastating. The front row struggles, the scrum retreats, the three-quarter line is back-peddling and virtually incapable of making progress up the field. To have any chance, your man at No 3 has to be a rock.
Asked about his current form and state of mind as the season approaches he says: “I feel very confident. Feel good in my own skin. I’ve come off the back of a couple of tough seasons.”
Not starting a lot of big games with Leinster was “hard, but these are things that happen in every player’s career,” he says. “Towards the end of last season I played in a lot of big games and I’ve won medals. A lot of players don’t get to do that in their career.”
The thought of Jamie Hagan winning medals and playing rugby for Ireland would have seemed ridiculous 10 years ago.
Back then, the 16-year-old from Balbriggin in north County Dublin had never played the game. He went to school in Gormanstown, just over the Meath border. Gaelic football was – still is – a religion there.
In his hometown, Hagan played for O’Dwyers and was consumed by intense games with local rivals such as Man O’ War, Skerries Harps and St Sylvesters.
“One day one of my best mates said ‘Come down to a tip match at Balbriggin rugby club’.”
He did and a coach saw his potential and nurtured him along. A couple of years later he was playing for Leinster Youths.
“Since I was 18 this has been everything. I know one day it won’t be.”
When his professional sports career ends Hagan plans to become a secondary school geography teacher – he’s two-and-half years into a degree course.
Away from the game he’s into fishing, shooting, watching GAA and “having a kickabout with the missus”.
(Here is a gift to any representatives of ladies GAA clubs in London: The missus is Sinead O’Mahony, a talented footballer who has represented Dublin. The couple are setting up home in Walton but Sinead’s job is in Wembley. If you’re the team for her, get in touch. Her other half says she’d be keen to play.)
Put Jamie Hagan’s name into Google and after the usual Wikipedia entry and an interview or two you can’t help but notice the video clip of him decked out in a Dubs jersey, standing in front for a spacecraft telling the camera about how the moon landings of 1969 was all a cod.
It’s hard to tell if he’s a genuine conspiracy theorist or was just having the craic.
Magnificently, it seems to be the former. At least that’s what he says … All is never what it seems.
“Shane Monaghan who plays for Gloucester, an Irish guy as well, he’s mad into conspiracy theories.I sort of follow them as well … Loads of conspiracy theories, like JFK, 9/11 and the moon landings …
“The IRFU commercial fella said ‘Come and we’ll do a video for the laugh’. The players found it quite funny I think, thought I’d gone mad in the head.
“I’m very interested though. There’s some serious documentaries on the Discovery Channel. UFO landings and the like…
“What I want to know is, they had Neil Armstrong coming out of the shuttle – who was videoing him? Who was the first man on the moon like? That quote as well, ‘One small step for man’ … that couldn’t have been off the cuff.
“It was too good, way too good.”
Seriously, you have to warm to a man like that.
And not to leave you with the wrong impression: he thinks a lot more about rugby than what the Bilderberg group really discussed in Watford.
His goal for the season is to help the Exiles to, at least, a Heineken Cup spot. He realises he has to fight hard for his place but aims to “start every important game for London Irish and play for Ireland in the Six Nations”.
He is, he feels, in the right place to engage and drive on.
“Since I’ve been here the players have been very, very professional. Their attitude is fantastic. The group has lads from all walks of life and gets on very well. This club is going in the right direction.”