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‘I ended up feeling sorry for myself, now I’m ready to take my second chance’

Dave Heffernan is determined to make his mark with Ireland after fearing his international career was over.

Dave Heffernan has fought his way back into Ireland's squad.
Dave Heffernan has fought his way back into Ireland's squad.
Image: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

DAVE HEFFERNAN’S CONFIDENCE had sunk so low, they had to dispatch the divers to find it. He didn’t imagine he’d fall not after Pat Lam had called him a ‘rock star’, not when Joe Schmidt had called him off the bench to play against the US.

It was his first cap but within a year, he feared it’d be his last, years of blood and sweat condensed into a single match.

That was all he had – that solitary international cap. He’d been picked to play for Ireland in June but ignored in November. January came and January went without the phone ringing. Onto June, 2018 and when Ireland were on tour in Australia, Heffernan was back in pre-season with Connacht. The gap between success and failure offers little shade.

Two years on, he’s back. The circumstances are different; Andy Farrell – rather than Schmidt – has picked him this time, the Six Nations being way more of a deal than a few end-of-season games during a Lions summer.

But that’s not really the story. This is more about a person facing down fear, taking the leap from back-rower to hooker, from doubt to belief.

The year after the cap I struggled for form,” Heffernan says. “I wasn’t playing well enough. There were plenty of times I ended up feeling sorry for myself, disappointed with the way things had gone for me. There were times when I was thinking, that was probably it for me (as far as his Ireland career was concerned). In this game, there are so many ups and downs.”

dave-heffernan-and-aj-macginty Heffernan in action against the USA in 2017. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

What’s different now is he understands this life, appreciating that rugby is a sport that doesn’t just bruise the body but also the emotions.  

“It can take over your life,” Heffernan says. “It’s a cliché but you have got to learn to live in the moment, to stop looking too far ahead. You can’t overthink things. It took me a while to learn how to do that but finally I’m there now.”

The mind doctors helped, Rob Kelly and Deirdre Lyons down in Galway; Enda McNulty up in Dublin. They teased out answers, listened to him explain how, when he made a mistake, he didn’t know how to move on and forget about it. As a result, one error would lead another and before he knew it, they’d be links in a chain.

“In the past, that sort of stuff got on top of me,” Heffernan says. “I’d have a bad throw and think, ‘I’ve let my team mates down just there, as well as my family and friends’. I’d get down on myself.

“But this season, it’s different. Look, I still make mistakes but the way I react to them is to go and make sure the next thing I do in a game is decent. More than that, I’ve learned over the last couple of years that your family and friends don’t think any less of you if you have a good or bad game. They love you for who you are not for how you play.”

One man who does love him for how he plays is Andy Farrell. Opting for Heffernan over Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell was quite a statement, yet when you delve deeper into the reasons, you can see why it happened.

To start with, Farrell endured a wobble of his own when he swapped league for union, Wigan for Saracens, struggling with injuries and how to get to grips with this new sport. Sometimes the road to success is paved with potholes.

Furthermore, the new head coach wants Ireland to play with energy and drive – boxes Heffernan ticks.

“Not too many guys get a second chance,” the Connacht hooker said. “This time I will do everything I can to get selected.”

AU1I3781 Caption: Dave Heffernan underwent a state of the art Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) test with Specsavers today Source: lorraineosullivan

That was the pep talk he gave to himself in December when he was called up for what Farrell described as a ‘stocktake’ – which was essentially a 45-man audition in front of the new coaching staff. “I was very surprised to be picked for that,” Heffernan said. “My form had been patchy but as soon as I headed up there, motivation wasn’t an issue.”

Anxiety was a concern last Wednesday, however. He knew Farrell’s trimmed down squad was going to be announced at 4pm and when colleagues got phone calls from Farrell earlier in the day, a sick feeling developed in his stomach.

All day he stared at his phone. It didn’t ring. Approaching 4pm, he was getting increasingly nervous when he logged into his inbox and there, just above a message alerting him to new notifications on his Facebook page, was an email from the IRFU. He clicked open. Formally he was invited to train with Ireland.

Straight away, he phoned his parents, telling them the news. Next he thought back to 2013, the conversations he had with the then Connacht coaches about relocating from flanker to the front row.

“The easier thing would have been to stay where I was; I could still have made it at Connacht. But I knew I’d a better chance of going to a higher level if I made the switch – because I wasn’t as big or as fast as other back-rowers. Still and all, it was a big call. At times the transition has been hard. I don’t think I’m there yet.”

In truth, though, he’s never been closer.

  • Specsavers, official opticians and audiologists’ for the Irish Rugby Football Union have been testing the players eyesight with OCT technology, their most advanced eye exam to date. Find out more here: www.specsavers.ie

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