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Warriors reject plays test rugby for Romania

Former Junior Warrior Stephen Shennan in action for Romania.

- This story was originally published on Newsroom.co.nz  and is republished with permission.

Steve Shennan dreamed of becoming a rugby league Warrior.

A member of the club's Under-20s set-up under legendary youth coach John Ackland in 2011, Shennan was on the right trajectory – and amongst the right company.

Stephen Shennan (right) goes in for the tackle while playing for Saracens against Harlequins in the European Rugby Challenge Cup, in December 2016.

Of his 34 team-mates in the Junior Warriors that year, nine would go on to play in the NRL, including Konrad Hurrell (Warriors and Titans), Ben Henry (Warriors), Siliva Havili (Warriors and Dragons) and Sosaia Feki (Sharks).

Sam Lousi now plays for Super Rugby's Wellington Hurricanes while Dylan Collier is a member of the New Zealand Sevens squad. But the brutal reality for most aspiring junior athletes is that they never make the pro ranks.

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A former Kelston Boys High 1st XV rugby player who'd played some Fox Memorial footy with the Te Atatu Roosters, Shennan joined the Junior Warriors via an open trial in late 2010. After playing just a handful of games, he was cut at the end of the 2011 season.

Not overly shocked or dismayed at his rejection, Shennan quit Auckland to live with his brother in Melbourne, where he worked in construction as a labourer. At an age when his best years should still have been ahead of him, Shennan's professional sporting dream looked as good as dead.

"I really wasn't too heartbroken about it. It's the end of a contract - you move on and try and find something else," Shennan said.

Fast forward six years and Shennan is an international test rugby winger for Romania, and a virtual lock-in to play for the Eastern European nation if they make the next Rugby World Cup, in Japan, in 2019.

"When people ask me how I came here, it's like a bit of a story to explain it," the 25-year-old tells Newsroom, via Skype, from his home in Timisoara, Romania.

"It's not like I saw something on the internet and applied for it. I talked to one person, then another person – and then I've got some tickets to go to Romania. Playing for them, it's pretty crazy."

Since his international debut against Portugal in Cluj on Waitangi Day last year, Shennan has earned 14 test caps for Romania – and played a significant role in the recent Rugby Europe Championship campaign that has put his adopted country in prime position to qualify for Japan.

Having torn his ACL in his most recent test match against Georgia in Bucharest last month, Shennan will be spending the majority of 2017 on the sidelines. He's still awaiting surgery, but expects to be out of rugby until December.

His convalescence will take place at the gym at Timisoara's Stadionul Dan Paltinisanu; a place as far removed from Penrose's Mt Smart Stadium as one could get.

Despite his early rejection, Shennan credits his time with Auckland's Junior Warriors as the making of him.

"John was an amazing coach – I learnt so much from him. What he does really well for the younger guys is help people look at the future. There was a culture there that was really good. It was a real brotherhood."

Auckland Vulcans coach Ricky Henry was interested in securing his services when he was cut, but Shennan decided to move to Melbourne.

It was a fateful move. He played some club rugby – and got to know former Tongan international halfback David Palu, who was fresh off a contract in Romania. Palu offered to help Shennan score a deal for himself.

"He said 'Man, I've got this for you if you want it," Shennan says.

"I was like 'Ah, yea, why not.' I thought I'd just do it and see another part of the world. I'm still here now."

Upon joining the then Chester Williams-coached Timasoara Saracens in 2013, the former NZ Maori U-19s league rep had three initial thoughts on Romania: it was cold, the rugby was physical – and the nightlife was wild.

"It's a bit different to Ponsonby Road," he says.

Shennan has racked up 30 appearances for his club, scoring 14 tries domestically and in inter-European club competitions.

A favoured sport of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu during the Cold War, state funding was poured into Romanian rugby during the 1970s and '80s.

During their golden era, the 'Oaks', as they are known, beat France, Wales, Scotland, and were narrowly defeated by the All Blacks 14-6 in 1981.

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain and Ceausescu's death in 1989, support for rugby fell away. It's still behind football, handball and basketball in the pecking order of Romanian sports, but recent years have seen a Romanian rugby revival, with interest, cash and foreign players coming into the game.

Alongside Shennan at Timisoara are fellow Kiwis Sosene Anesi, a one-test All Black who is a player-coach in Romania, and ex-Tasman Makos halfback Jack Umaga.

"There are three top teams that are better than the rest," Shennan says.

"We are one of them, and, yea, I think Timasoara could compete at an ITM Cup situation. We've got a couple of guys here who have played ITM.

"We've got a lot of guys from home - two Kiwi coaches and nine or 10 Romanian internationals too. I think we'd fit in. The game is gradually changing here. There's a lot more transfers coming in, guys with a lot more experience, and that helps.

"Bigger stadiums are being built in the capital and people are more interested after us winning the European Cup."

Once Shennan - who speaks the local language fluently now and has a Romanian partner – does get back on the paddock, his goal over the next two years is a simple one: make the World Cup.

Facing the All Blacks is something he would relish.

"People ask me 'What if you get there and have to face the All Blacks?" I don't know what I'd do. I guess it would be a bit emotional, but you do what you've got to do. You're just playing for another country. At the end of the day, it would just be another game of rugby with a little bit more emotion in it."

Shennan is comfortable with the twists and turns his sporting career has taken. He didn't get that big money NRL contract, but he's cool with that.

"It's just one of those things," he says of being cut by the Warriors as a teenager.

"If you're not really in the team going forward or only play a handful of games, you understand anyway that club isn't going to offer you a full-time contract.

"If you're not injured or didn't do spectacular things in those games, you know what's coming. That's how it is in professional sport. It's one thing that John [Ackland] is really good at – that year helped me see that I could actually do it and play sport for a living.

"I really wasn't too heartbroken about it. It's the end of a contract – you move on and try and find something else.

"I never would have thought I ended up here. But it's been one of the best things that has happened to me. I'm happy here – I enjoy it. The lifestyle is nice; it's easy-going. Training is the same-old – rugby day-in day-out.

"I'm playing rugby and doing what I want to be doing – you can't complain about that."

- This story was originally published on Newsroom.co.nz  and is republished with permission.

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