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'He’s a rock star up in Ballina. Now he’s going to play for Ireland'

Dave Heffernan was named in Joe Schmidt’s squad to tour the US and Japan this summer.

YESTERDAY WAS A proud day for the town of Ballina in Mayo, and the hope will be that there are many more of them ahead.

You see, local boy Dave Heffernan was called up to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad to tour the US and Japan next month, one of eight uncapped players in the 31-player group.

Dave Heffernan scores a try Heffernan scored a try against Leinster this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

In fairness, calling 26-year-old Heffernan a local ‘boy’ isn’t really accurate, but there is little doubt about the pride Ballina is feeling at his achievement. The fact that he has had to wait until the age of 26 says it all about the determination of the Connacht hooker.

Again, we must correct ourselves here – because Heffernan hasn’t really been hanging around waiting for Schmidt’s number to pop up on his mobile phone. In the last year, the idea has probably been on his mind, but Heffernan has spent most of his time with Connacht since 2013 simply attempting to nail the tricky reality of being a hooker.

A back row during his youth, covering the second row at times in school with Blackrock College, Heffernan was never really a star. He is now, according to Pat Lam.

“The Ballina thing is big,” said Lam yesterday in Galway. “That’s the whole grassroots to greenshirts thing. You go up to Ballina it’s a two-hour drive. That rugby club, they were the club of the year at our Connacht awards.

“He’s a rock star up there just because he plays for Connacht. Now he’s going to play for Ireland. It’s a great story for the west of Ireland.”

Heffernan played for Connacht at underage levels and earned a single cap for the Ireland U20s, still a back row, and entered the western province’s academy without having even considered playing hooker.

He made his senior debut on the blindside flank in his first year with the academy but slipped down the pecking order in his second season, when it was suggested that a shift into the front row might make sense.

David Heffernan Heffernan is excellent around the pitch. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Heffernan wasn’t seen on the pitch during that 2012/13 campaign, as the transition began in earnest, but he managed to make a start as a hooker in 2013/14, showed his promise and went on to earn selection for Emerging Ireland in 2015 in his new position.

There were struggles, of course, but the last two seasons have seen Heffernan flourish, nailing his set-piece duties more consistently and offering valuable mobility, dynamism, fitness and skill level around the pitch.

Schmidt has been watching with keen interest for a while and with Rory Best missing for the upcoming tour and Sean Cronin injured, the time is right to have an even closer look at Heffernan.

“First and foremost it takes a lot of guts to switch, to go up to the front row,” said Lam of Heffernan yesterday. “He made that. Certainly when I arrived he had only just done it.

“But I have watched his progression, and he will be the first to thank a lot of people that have helped him along the way. Tom McCartney has been big for him, Sean Henry, all of these hookers that have helped him progress.

“Without that sort of help, and obviously Jimmy Duffy, Dan McFarland and Ambrose Conboy – all these boys have done some great work helping him develop.

“But ultimately I said to Heff, and even when I was talking with Joe, [he is] a guy who has worked really hard to nail that part of his game. He is one of the fittest in the squad, he is really diligent. But certainly when I saw him from day one to here, it’s no surprise and very well deserved.”

Dave Heffernan warms up Heffernan has come a long way, and there's more to come. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Heffernan’s remarkable journey will certainly serve as inspiration for some frustrated young players, even if his success at switching position may not be repeatable for all.

Up in Ballina – the home town of Gavin Duffy too, of course – they will be beaming with pride if Heffernan continues his rise by running out for his first Ireland cap this summer, while every one of his Connacht team-mates will share in that feeling.

It’s awesome, especially for a guy like Heff,” said Connacht flanker Jake Heenan. “He’s a lovely guy to have around, he would be a close friend to all of the boys.

“It’s always encouraging, especially for young guys, guys coming through the academy to see someone like Heff, who does put in so much work during hours and after hours to reach such a big carrot and we are all delighted for him.”

– First published 06.15

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