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'That will be one of the big aims this year - to try and get back in with Ireland'

Connacht hooker Dave Heffernan is determined to add to his one Ireland cap.

GOAL-KICKERS HAD to be resourceful during lockdown and it was no different for hookers, whose throwing skills couldn’t be neglected even if they had no lineouts to aim for.

Back at the family home in Ballina, Connacht hooker Dave Heffernan managed to build a tall hoop to aim his throws at and got through the daily reps that are part and parcel of the gig.

His father, former Mayo goalkeeper Ivan, sometimes joined him to call the imaginary lineouts or Heffernan simply visualised Quinn Roux or another of the Connacht second rows communicating the play. 

dave-heffernan Heffernan at Connacht pre-season training. Source: Connacht Rugby/INPHO

Heffernan’s old man also put him through his paces with some tough fitness sessions as the 29-year-old maintained his fitness while handily managing to add a few kilos of lean mass during the enforced break from rugby.

All in all, he returned to start Connacht’s pre-season training last month in a good place as he looks to build on what had been an excellent 2019/20 campaign before everything came shuddering to a halt. Heffernan’s impressive form for his province earned him a call-up to Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations and although he didn’t make an appearance in the three games, it was his first involvement since winning his single Ireland cap back in 2017 against the US.

That tour didn’t go particularly well for Heffernan and he faded from Ireland contention the following season but he has come back into considering in impressive fashion recently, his longstanding dynamism around the pitch now married with far greater consistency in all other aspects of the game.

Though Rob Herring and Ronan Kelleher were the two hookers who featured on the pitch during the 2020 Six Nations games, Heffernan is enthusiastic about the experience of being back in the mix.

“I loved it, it was unreal,” says Heffernan. “Working with Faz was really good. It’s obviously a pity it had to be stopped where it was but I loved that really competitive environment.

“Even though I wasn’t selected, I never felt I was a million miles away. Even though the lads were going well, you got a chance in training every week and you weren’t just like a tackle bag.

“I learned a lot and that will be one of the big aims for this year – to try and get back in there if I can when the season restarts.”

The retirement of Rory Best after last year’s World Cup opened up the number two jersey for the first time in years and though Herring was backed to take the first shot at nailing down the starting slot, Heffernan appreciates that there is opportunity.

Capped internationals like Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin didn’t feature earlier this year, but Heffernan feels there is a big battle there for hooker spots in Farrell’s squad. Next month’s back-to-back inter-pros in the Pro14 are timely in that regard.

“Rory obviously had it locked down for a long time so it’s a lot more competitive now,” says Heffernan. “Rob and Ronan did really well when they got their chances so I’m hoping to get a look in at some stage.

“There are guys that weren’t selected who have done it at international level before so there’s probably five, six or seven guys across the provinces who would all be well able and probably see themselves in that window to be selected.”

dave-heffernan Heffernan was back in the Ireland squad for the Six Nations. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

So how has Heffernan worked his way back into the frame?

He puts much of it down to hard work on his mental skills. Having switched from the back row to hooker relatively late, the mental side of things has been the biggest challenge of his professional career but the Ballina RFC product has been diligent.

Having the hoop at the family home during lockdown obviously helped Heffernan keep on top of the technical skill element of his throwing – such a huge part of a hooker’s job – but, more importantly, it allowed him to maintain the mindset he has built around it.

He acknowledges that he used to lack consistency, having “ups and downs with performances,” and often that was down to a lost lineout in a game. A failure for him and Connacht in that area would negatively seep into the rest of his game.

Hard work on the mental side of the game has altered things, though. Former Ireland mental skills coach Enda McNulty was a major help when Heffernan first shifted to hooker and he now regularly works with Rob Kelly, a Galway-based ‘performance mind coach’ who also counts Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion among his clients.

“Any area of closed skill, the mental skills side is massively important,” says Heffernan. “You hear golfers talk about it, penalty takers too, the mental side is huge.

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“Tom McCartney [the Connacht hooker who has just retired] was really good at it – any time he made a mistake he was able to park it straight away and it would literally affect none of the rest of his game. I try to model myself on the way he approached it.”

Heffernan – a bookworm who recommends Timothy Gallwey’s ’The Inner Game of Tennis’ – consistently reminds himself that a mistake isn’t the end of the world, while his attitude towards ‘success’ at lineout time has changed.

Now it’s one of “putting the ball exactly where it needs to be” as opposed to worrying about Connacht actually winning the lineout.

“All I can control is where I put the ball and then it’s up to the lads to get the lift right, the jump right, the call right.

“I have less of a focus now on the outcome percentage of the lineout than I would have before and now I grade my lineouts myself on the quality of the throw. That helps a lot, just being process-focused.

dave-heffernan Heffernan has worked hard on his mental skills around throwing. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“That’s a cliché but for anyone with a closed skill you have to hone in on that. If you’re worried about the outcome, there are things out of your control sometimes. The defence might just make a perfect read and steal the ball, for example. I focus on getting the perfect throw every time.”

Heffernan throws the ball at least five days each week outside of the Connacht’s team training sessions, often just for 10 or 15 minutes, sometimes for longer to nail down a specific detail. 

Of course, there’s plenty more to a hooker’s role than throwing. Heffernan says taking more leadership at the scrum is a target for him with Connacht after the retirement of the vocal McCartney, while he’s also keen to continue to refine his obvious strengths.

Having come from the back row, he’s always been very mobile and his impact on the ball for Connacht last season was something Ireland boss Farrell particularly liked.

“I’m at my best when I’m busy and on the ball quite a lot,” says Heffernan. “That was a big focus last year, I did a lot of extra work on the carry side of things and [forwards coach] Jimmy Duffy was excellent, he helped me a lot.

“It was probably the first time I did a lot of extras on something I would have perceived to be a strength of my game and it made a big difference.

“It can be easy to focus on what you’re not good at all the time and you maybe neglect an area where you think you’re already pretty good. I made progress with my carries last year with that extra work. The reason you get picked is because of your strengths, not what you’re not good at, so you want to amplify that as much as possible.”

Connacht boss Andy Friend will expect the hooker to be a real leader for the province again this season, as they look to put the “frustration” of failing to really push forward in 2019/20 behind them in 2020/21.

There are two Pro14 games to finish out from last season next month first, but the western province are targeting the Champions Cup knock-out stages [as long as they're confirmed in what looks like being a 24-team competition] and a top-two finish in their conference of the Pro14 next season.

Heffernan enjoyed being back at home for a few months with the lockdown, particularly as both of his sisters also returned to Ballina, but he’s enjoying being into the thick of pre-season in Galway, joking that the players have never looked forward to contact sessions as much.

dave-heffernan Heffernan feels ready for a big season with Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With several new signings and some promising players promoted into the senior squad, Friend and co. are excited about the possibilities ahead.

And with a hectic autumn schedule ahead for Ireland, Heffernan is determined to be right in battle for the hooker slot under head coach Farrell.

“He is really impressive, he’s an unbelievable speaker and really gets his point across well all the time,” says Heffernan of the Ireland boss. “I hadn’t worked with him at all before, he was with the Lions in 2017, so I was really impressed with him.

“He probably gave me a shot when there wasn’t much pressure on him to give me a shot so I probably owe him for that too. The way he organised things was quite cool, he put a lot of onus back on the players to lead things as opposed to being spoon-fed everything, which can happen sometimes.

“As players, you could just expect things to be done for you but he really put it back on the players to deliver at meetings and do all the analysis stuff as well.”

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Murray Kinsella

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