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'Mack has really stepped up as a leader. The Six Nations was unbelievable for him'

Connacht hooker Dave Heffernan and co. enjoyed a crucial win in Italy ahead of their Leinster clashes.

Mack Hansen is growing as a leader with Connacht.
Mack Hansen is growing as a leader with Connacht.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

MACK HANSEN’S TEAM-mates in Connacht have seen the 24-year-old adding strings to his bow at a relentless pace so far this season and the latest one is leadership.

With his confidence boosted by his try-scoring exploits for the province earlier in this campaign, then his first Six Nations with Ireland, Hansen’s voice is becoming more prominent in the Connacht squad.

He made his return for the province in last weekend’s dramatic 21-17 win away to Benetton as Andy Friend’s side kept their United Rugby Championship play-off hopes alive.

Connacht led for the majority of the game but fell behind for the first time in the 69th minute when reduced to 14 men by a yellow card. 17-14 down and staring at a defeat that would likely have ended their play-off ambitions, Connacht found a way to win as replacement prop Tietie Tuimauga crossed for a converted try in the 76th minute.

Connacht then had to cling on for dear life as Benetton threw a final onslaught at them, but they emerged with a crucial victory. Hansen was a busy man with 17 carries in total and he had a big impact with his words too.

“Mack actually spoke really well at one stage in the second half when we were under the pump,” explains Connacht hooker Dave Heffernan. “We came in together and he was the one who stood up and spoke really well.

“He has really stepped up as a leader in the group. I think the Six Nations was unbelievable for him and he spoke really well on how we needed to come together, acknowledged that we were under serious pressure, but that we needed to fight back together.

“We did that and just ground out the result in the end which was big for us.”

Hansen’s message was a particularly pertinent one, given how Connacht had tried to solve things individually in their recent URC defeats to Edinburgh and Leinster. Last weekend, they worked as a team to get the victory.

dave-heffernan Dave Heffernan was speaking ahead of the Heineken Champions Cup last-16 clash between Connacht and Leinster this Friday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It keeps them alive in the URC for now, although they still have a tough tour to South Africa to play the Lions and Sharks. 

“We really needed a win,” says Heffernan. “We needed a performance, firstly, but to get the win was massive and a bit of a confidence booster. It wasn’t perfect obviously and we put ourselves in a bit of bother towards the end of the game, but to dig it out the way we did was definitely a boost.”

The lift in morale is timely given that Connacht are now facing into home-and-away clashes with Leinster in the Round-of-16 of the Heineken Champions Cup over the next two weekends.

This Friday night will be the province’s first knock-out game in the European competition. Heffernan and his team-mates are determined to put on a show for their loyal fans. 

“It’s the reason you play the game as a kid, it’s those massive games you dream about playing in.

“We know the support this weekend is going to be unbelievable and even over in Treviso, the amount of fans we had over there was incredible and it didn’t feel like an away game at times. 

“We’re dying to play in front of a packed Sportsground this weekend and we know it’s a special occasion for them, so we want to reward their support with a massive performance.”

Two weekends ago, Leinster left the Sportsground with a 45-8 win but an early red card for Connacht centre Tom Daly was obviously very influential.

That said, Connacht have only won two of their last 10 games against Leinster and are the heavy underdogs for this two-legged European tussle.

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dave-heffernan Heffernan is aiming for a spot on Ireland's tour of New Zealand. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

Heffernan says the westerners will need to be excellent for the entire 80 minutes, keeping their error count low against a team as clinical as Leinster.

“Once the errors start creeping in, they have so much quality over the park that they will punish you,” says the hooker.

“It’s about minimising the errors but at the same time, not playing within ourselves. We want to play our brand of rugby but not give them easy access into the game. Last weekend, we gave away 18 penalties and if we do that this weekend, we know we won’t stand a chance.”

For Heffernan, this weekend is another chance to build towards his best form.

The 31-year-old is targeting a place on Ireland’s July tour of New Zealand but was behind Rónan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, and Rob Herring in the hooking pecking order during the recent Six Nations.

“I thought I started the season quite well and was happy with how I was playing,” says Heffernan.

“I probably dipped a bit, I wasn’t happy with my performance at all against Edinburgh and in the last Leinster game. I thought I got back on track last weekend with a solid performance but I know I need a big finish to this season.

“Obviously, the goal is to get on that summer tour but I know I’ll need to play unbelievably well because there’s serious competition there at hooker. The three lads did really well in the Six Nations so I need to deliver consistently and build on last weekend.”

Dave Heffernan was speaking at The Sportsground, Galway, ahead of the crunch Heineken Champions Cup last-16 clash between Connacht and Leinster this Friday. This is the 27th consecutive season Heineken® has been a proud partner of European rugby, and the fifth season of the Heineken® and Rugby Players Ireland partnership.

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Murray Kinsella

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