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Dublin: 9 °C Monday 25 March, 2019

Connacht's late bloomer Heffernan won't be pushed aside

Connacht’s hooker is building himself into a recognised front-line player as Pat Lam’s side reach for the top.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LIKE A LOT OF rugby players who begin life in Gaelic games, Dave Heffernan wasn’t usually selected for his for pin-point foot passing.

“I played down the middle generally,” says the Connacht hooker of his days with Ballina.

“Either full-back, centre-back or midfield. I played a bit for Mayo under age, but once I got to minor level I had to pick one or the other. I went with rugby and that was the end of the football for me.”

The Mayo man glosses over any difficulty with the choice he made. He arrived late to rugby, admitting he only really began to take his oval ball commitments seriously in the last of his three years in Blackrock College.

The 23-year-old returned West as a flanker, but over the last 18 months has adapted to his role in the front row, for better or worse.

“For the fans anyway, if a line-out goes wrong it’s usually the hooker,” Heffernan says wryly after we ask about Connacht’s 12/14 line-out success rate against the Dragons.

“It’s not always that way, it’s a team thing, but I was definitely at fault for one of them last weekend… the other one’s debatable.

“You’re aiming for 100% every game which is not always going to happen, but you need to keep in the 90s if you want to be a top hooker. So that’s what I’m aiming for.”

“Last season, I was more filling in for injured guys. This season I really want to push my place down on merit. Pat’s been good to me so far this year, put a lot of time into me and I do feel a lot more confident.

“Last season was my first full season as a hooker. So I’ve got to push on now. Keep learning and moving on.”

All around the western province there appears to be a growing confidence that the current team can consistently hit high targets. Whether that’s simply down to an increase in investment from the IRFU, some shrewd signings, or the advent or meritocracy in the Pro12, it amounts to positive signs across the Shannon.

“Last year there were a lot of changes. We had some good results, obviously, but consistency wasn’t really good enough. This season we don’t really have an excuse anymore,” said Heffernan before being awarded his 15th provincial cap, just his third as a starter.

“There’s definitely more clarity throughout the squad. We all know what we have to do.

Dave Heffernan Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“When a new coach comes in with different philosophies it will take a little bit of time to adapt to it. This year we’re still trying to do the same things, but we’re trying to do them better.

“I think everybody has more confidence in it. We’re challenging each other a lot more this year. Hopefully it will show on the pitch, we’re quietly confident we can do that. Because not getting the results is not good enough.”

Last week, the result was acceptable; a 16 – 11 win in a card-ridden clash with the Dragons. However, tonight is the greater test of Connacht resolve as they bid to earn a repeat result on the road.

Helping towards that goal, Robbie Henshaw is available to start his first game of the season in the centre role so many see as his long-term future. Kieran Marmion also starts having been among the replacements last time out, though the side’s one enforced change brings Willie Faloon to openside after Jake Heenan aggravated his shoulder injury.

‘Off the pedal’

Despite the youthful look of this Connacht side (with an average backline age of 22.5), they know what’s required. And though a repeat result would be acceptable in Edinburgh tonight, a repeat performance will not.

“We were pretty happy to get the win against Dragons, but weren’t happy with all the aspects, it wasn’t a perfect performance. It was a tough game. We started quite well and should have put points on the board, but we put our foot off the pedal a bit and they came right back into it - they could have won in the end.

“Edinburgh are a big physical side. The number eight, Cornell Du Preez had a super game [against Munster]. We’ll have to physically match them if we want to get the win; shutting them down, getting off the line faster than we did last week will be very important because they’re obviously on a high after winning in Thomond Park.”

Down the middle, in the thick of it, is where Heffernan loves to be.

Edinburgh: Jack Cuthbert; Sam Beard, Phil Burleigh, Andries Strauss, Nick McLennan; Tom Heathcote. Sean Kennedy:  Alasdair Dickinson. Ross Ford (Capt). John Andress; Fraser McKenzie. Ollie Atkins; Tomas Leonardi. Hamish Watson. Cornell Du Preez.

Replacements: James Hilterbrand, Rory Sutherland, W P Nel, Anton Bresler, Mike Coman, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Grayson Hart, Joaquin Dominguez.

Connacht: Darragh Leader; Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Dave McSharry, Danie Poolman; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion: Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Nathan White; Mick Kearney, Quinn Roux; John Muldoon (Capt.), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.

Replacements: Sean Henry, Finlay Bealham, Rodney Ah You, Aly Muldowney, George Naoupu, Ian Porter, Craig Ronaldson, Fionn Carr.

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Sean Farrell

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