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'If you want to play for Ireland you have to play in Ireland, and that was a big factor'

Denis Buckley has been a star for Connacht but still hasn’t been capped by Ireland.

DENIS BUCKLEY POSSESSES a strength that many of us struggle with: self-awareness.

He’s acutely aware of what he’s good at in rugby, on and off the pitch, and understands exactly what he needs to do to get better.

His determination is an important attribute too and it’s driving him towards one overriding goal in his career, a goal that meant he resisted the temptation to move to the Premiership this summer.

Denis Buckley Buckley has been pushing hard for an Ireland cap. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

We sit down the day after he has been informed that he won’t be fulfilling that goal next month, barring injuries, and while you might expect some bitterness from a player many agree is unlucky not to have an Ireland cap yet, Buckley is mature about it.

The 26-year-old Connacht loosehead prop has been in Ireland’s training camp at Carton House before, but so far Joe Schmidt has resisted calling Buckley into a Six Nations, November Test or touring squad proper.

Buckley is part of the standby list for Ireland’s tour of the US and Japan, missing out to Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne on making the squad itself. He is obviously disappointed but stresses that he can’t allow himself to dwell on that feeling.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity and it was being spoken of as a bit of a development tour, so if you’re not capped those are the things you aim for to get your foot in the door,” says Buckley.

“All I can do now is to move on and be positive about it. In fairness to Joe, he did give me a lot of good feedback and stuff to work on. It’s a good opportunity to pick his brain for areas you can improve on and what they’re looking for that might give you the edge and push for the next opportunity.

“I’ll do that, remain positive, and hopefully I can use it as an incentive. Hopefully, my opportunity will come.”

Buckley has a chance to impress Schmidt today as Connacht meet a Northampton team that features Lions, England internationals and France’s leading player in the Champions Cup qualification play-offs at Franklin’s Gardens [KO 4pm, TG4].

“These games are as close to Test level as you play and it’s a good opportunity for coaches to see you at that level, which isn’t every weekend,” says Buckley, who played for Emerging Ireland in 2015.

And whether or not Connacht’s season ends there or with a play-off final next weekend, Buckley will be staying alert for any possible late call-up for Ireland, be it through Healy being required by the Lions or an injury in Schmidt’s squad.

Buckley will head on holidays but says he will continue to train, as well as traveling to somewhere close to Ireland with his gumshield and boots packed. He’s not going to miss his chance.

From his first days with the U8s at Creggs RFC, the Roscommon native has been dreaming of the green shirt.

He played hurling, football and soccer as a youngster, while a fondness for handball was helpful in developing the kind of hand-eye coordination that may be relevant now.

Denis Buckley Buckley at Connacht training back in 2010. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Indeed, Buckley’s handling skills are a real strength in his game, with his range of offloads and passes having been so impressive during Connacht’s journey to their Pro12 title last season.

Pat Lam famously insisted on every player in the province’s squad carrying a ball around with them at all times when he first arrived, but Buckley had little problem in adjusting to that demand.

Having done his secondary education as a boarder in Blackrock College – his father Maurice is also an alumnus – Buckley had been heading towards 10,000 hours from an early stage.

“After school, you’d have training every day,” he recalls. “We would have dinner at 5.30 and night study would start at 6.30, so we’d go straight from dinner to a game of touch rugby on what was called the ‘Castle Lawn’ for 40 minutes.

“You’d have a half-hour break in study where we’d play another game, and then sometimes after study at 9.30 there was a big car park that was lit up, where the day students would get collected, and there’d be a game of touch rugby going on again.”

Buckley wasn’t a star in his first three school years, but his development accelerated the summer after his Junior Cert with involvement in Connacht’s ‘Elite Academy,’ which stemmed from Nigel Carolan spotting him playing for Creggs as a 14-year-old.

There were various camps and development squads, but that single summer in Galway was huge for Buckley.

“They put us up in digs in the summer for eight weeks straight and we did a full pre-season, five days a week, two or three sessions a day with Nigel. He was running all the skills sessions and he was really hands-on in every session.”

Buckley returned to Blackrock the following school year and was involved in the senior panel, laying the foundation for a good fifth year and then his central role in the 2009 Leinster Schools Senior Cup-winning side.

It was a dominant Blackrock team that produced a handful of professional players in Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Jordi Murphy, Andrew Conway and Brendan Macken.

Buckley shone for the Connacht Schools side as a fifth year, leading to Ireland Schools internationals, before playing for Leinster U19s the following season – they had first dibs as he was playing in the Leinster system.

Connacht was always going to be the pathway for Buckley and he filled his CAO form with NUIG courses in order to take up the offer of an academy deal in Galway.

Denis Buckley and Eoin McKeon Buckley in pre-season action in 2011. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having played for Ireland U20s at the 2010 World Cup in Argentina – they finished ninth – Buckley went on to complete a degree in Commerce and he was featuring regularly for Connacht’s senior team by his third academy year.

His single year on a development deal was a success as he battled Brett Wilkinson for the number one shirt and the last three seasons have seen Buckley become the dominant first-choice at loosehead, having taken a year to fully convince Pat Lam of his merits.

One of his key challenges in stepping into first-choice status was his weight.

Buckley recalls playing against Harlequins in 2012 in the Heineken Cup and being up against the Samoan tighthead James Johnston at scrum time. 99kg versus 151kg.

“It was an insane difference,” he says with a laugh. “We did ok actually, we certainly weren’t dominant against them but we got our own ball back and didn’t allow them to use the scrum to get penalties.”

But the feedback was that Buckley would need to be bigger if he planned to make an impact long-term, as well as stay healthy against the front row giants.

“I found it quite hard to get the weight on but then one summer I just basically did it. I took a short holiday, but it wasn’t a party holiday, then the rest of the time I spent in Roscommon putting in a lot of training, a lot of eating, monitoring closely what I was eating to make sure I was hitting the right amount of calories each day.

He came back to Connacht’s pre-season around 8kg heavier and after running some of the body fat off, adapted well to his new weight.

Despite having been smaller than many of his opponents, Buckley never felt like he was lacking when it came to scrummaging.

He is confident in his ability in this area of the game and Connacht’s scrum was certainly a weapon on their drive to the Pro12 last season. Key to Buckley continuing to learn in this area was Dan McFarland, who is now part of Gregor Townsend’s Scotland set-up.

“I had Dan from Connacht 20s level, and he was a huge influence on my career, as well as Nigel,” says Buckley, who now plays at around 110kg.

“Dan played in my position and the amount of hours he would spend just doing one-on-one video sessions, reviewing everything you’re doing in training, giving you some good advice, and hard advice at times.

Denis Buckley and Tom McCartney Buckley has become a key man at Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He always cared about you and your career and he was a big influence on my making the step from maybe being a good AIL player [Buckley enjoyed his time with Corinthians] to a good senior player.”

Buckley’s game is about more than the set-piece, however. He has been a menace at the breakdown in recent seasons, consistently disrupting or stealing opposition possession with his low centre of gravity and sharp technical skills around the tackle area.

He has found it tougher this season, he explains, with teams now more aware of his threat to their ball. There is a target on his head and Buckley has had to adapt.

“It’s probably been a bit of a learning in terms of the fact that you have to be accurate in picking and choosing your breakdowns. There’s no point in burning into every breakdown and getting blitzed out of it. The next breakdown might be a real opportunity and you’re not on your feet and available to target it.

“So you’re trying to read play as it’s happening, so it’s going back to your analysis and how much you can learn off the field, outside of the closed skill of getting in and getting your hands on the ball.”

Buckley stresses that there are two sides to the breakdown, and clearing bodies away when Connacht are on the attack is something he relishes and takes great pride in.

He says Pat Lam’s technical expertise in this area has been particularly beneficial to him.

“It’s probably an under-appreciated skill for a lot of players. Having a low centre of gravity is an advantage there, getting to breakdowns and taking out targets that are going to slow down ball. It’s something that people don’t see as much in players.”

We’re into the realm of unseen work here, but for a front row player this is the reality of much of what they contribute.

Buckley can flick beautiful offloads to brings admiring gasps, but he knows that the foundational areas of the game will always be crucial for a prop. In some ways, he has had to learn that as a professional and he points to the lineout as a prime example.

“Lineout set-piece is huge and you probably don’t realise coming out of school or the AIL the difference in the level of it, the precision, the accuracy, the professionalism that is required,” says 5’10″ Buckley.

“We have so many different formations we use: 4, 5, 6, 7-man lineouts and then within those there’s different combinations of set-ups.

“Within each formation there’s possibly 15 calls, if not more, for each one. A lot of them do transfer over, so a call for one lineout is logically a movement for the other, where you could figure it out if you had time. But you really do need to know your stuff.”

Denis Buckley Buckley has signed on for another two years with Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Indeed, the whole area of being prepared is something Buckley has learned is simply pivotal since he came into the professional ranks, with McFarland having been an influence on him in this regard too.

“Extras, analysis, diet, even just preparing for training, your mental preparation for training.

“It’s becoming more and more a 24/7 job than just turning up and training for two hours a day. You don’t really realise that coming into it, just how much is actually required.”

Buckley won’t ever stop working on his scrummaging or his breakdown skills, but he also knows where he has the biggest gains to make.

Ball-carrying is “probably the weakest part of my game,” according to the man himself and this is something Schmidt is likely to have discussed with him.

“I don’t try to carry too much, if I get my hands on the ball I often try to play a little bit and be more of a link player than a carrier,” says Buckley. “That also allows me to clean rucks if I’m not carrying, which is something I like to think I’m good at and take pride in.

“I know when I play my best games, I don’t have 10-plus carries. I might touch the ball 10 times but I’m not taking it into contact 10 times. But saying that, you still have to be able to carry at different times in games and especially under some coaches’ game plans. Sometimes you will have to carry and it’s a big skill in rugby.

“It is something that I do put a good bit of work into, but I know it’s not at a high enough level that I’m satisfied with. I know it’s work-on, so that would be one area I know I can make big improvements on.

“I’ve got a low centre of gravity, so I try to use that to my advantage. I’m never going to be running over lads who are 10 or 15kg heavier. Using your footwork, using speed at the right time, those things make a big difference.”

Showing that ball-carrying progress is likely to be important for Buckley, while he also stresses that he is working hard to find absolute consistency in his performance levels.

Buckley hopes that his gains across the board will lead onto that grand aim of getting capped by Ireland and staying in Schmidt’s plans thereafter.

That objective also helped to keep him in Ireland beyond the summer, after he fended off the temptation to move to the Premiership next season to sign a new two-year contract with Connacht.

Denis Buckley Buckley is staying put beyond the summer. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I was up for renewal this year and it was a bit drawn out in the end,” says Buckley. “I had a bit of interest from abroad, there was something from France that fell through and there were one or two offers on the table from England.

“It was a tough week or two for me when I had those concrete offers on the table and Connacht concrete on the table.

“Probably a big thing was that it came back to the real goal from the start to play for Ireland. If you want to play for Ireland you more or less have to play in Ireland, and that was a big factor for me.”

Buckley loves playing for his home province too, of course, and looks with admiration at one-club men like John Muldoon and Ronan Loughney, but he knows that his future may be abroad if he is not given a chance at Test level.

He is utterly determined to make sure that is the case, however. When his chance comes, Buckley will be ready.

“You can go backwards and be quite negative about missing out, but I think the thing is to be positive and hopefully use it so that if you do get your opportunity, you can remember the times you felt down about not making it.

“I need to keep working hard, improving, playing consistently at a high level, to be as good as I can be so that if and when that opportunity does arrive I’m 100% ready to take it. Hopefully, once you get a foot in the door you can put your hand up to stay there.”

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Danie Poolman
12. Craig Ronaldson
11. Cian Kelleher
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Quinn Roux
5. Andrew Browne
6. Sean O’Brien
7. Jake Heenan
8. John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. JP Cooney
18. Conor Carey
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Naulia Dawai
21. Caolin Blade
22. John Cooney
23. Matt Healy

Northampton Saints:

15. Ahsee Tuala
14. Ben Foden
13. Nafi Tuitavake
12. Luther Burrell
11. George North
10. Harry Mallinder
9. Nic Groom

1. Alex Waller
2. Dylan Hartley (captain)
3. Kieran Brookes
4. Courtney Lawes
5. Christian Day
6. Jamie Gibson
7. Teimana Harrison
8. Louis Picamoles

Replacements:

16. Mikey Haywood
17. Campese Ma’afu
18. Gareth Denman
19. Api Ratuniyarawa
20. Tom Wood
21. Lee Dickson
22. Sam Olver
23. Rory Hutchinson

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

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