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'It taught me to enjoy rugby because there's a lot of worse jobs you could be doing'

Towering Connacht lock Gavin Thornbury has been involved in Ireland training under Joe Schmidt.

MAKING THE MOVE to Connacht wasn’t too big a deal for Gavin Thornbury, who knows the west well.

He spent a couple of summers at Irish college in the Gaeltacht village of Spiddal, while his father’s side of the family is from Galway, meaning plenty of other trips across from Dublin in his youth.

Sean O'Brien and Gavin Thornbury Thornbury [right] competes with Sean O'Brien at a lineout in Connacht training in Cape Town. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

As it happens, second row Thornbury is now living in Barna, a village that’s very familiar to his family.

“My granny’s old house is about 200 metres from where I’m living now,” explains 25-year-old Thornbury.

“It’s funny how it works out. When I signed, we brought my granny down to show her where I’d be living and she was showing us where she used to hang out.”

Having joined Connacht in April 2017, Thornbury settled swiftly with a strong first full season in 2017/18 and was impressive again early on this season, resulting in a recent two-year contract extension.

A product of the Leinster academy set-up, Thornbury had a stint in New Zealand rugby in 2016, but he is now fulfilling the potential he clearly possessed as he emerged with Blackrock College and the Ireland U20s.

Indeed, Joe Schmidt has been watching closely and called Thornbury into an extended Ireland training camp back in August. 

“Unfortunately, I had picked up a shoulder knock a couple of weeks before so I couldn’t train, but just to be around the environment was pretty special,” says 6ft 8ins Thornbury.

“It makes you hungry to be there consistently and get capped. It was eye-opening to see the level of detail they go through, it’s exceptional, but you can see that it pays off. It does make you want to push on and hopefully put your hand up for that selection.”

Gavin Thornbury Thornbury recently signed a two-year contract extension. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Thornbury made three starts for Connacht in September, but he injured his AC joint early on in a clash with Scarlets and missed almost two months of action, returning off the bench in last weekend’s win over the Southern Kings.

He’s pushing hard to regain full fitness and hopes to help Connacht complete an enjoyable fortnight in South Africa with a victory over the Cheetahs on Saturday, keen to force his way back into the starting XV under Andy Friend.

“The competition here is mad at this stage,” says Thornbury. “We have Quinn [Roux], Ulty [Ultan Dillane], Canno [James Cannon] is playing really well, we’ve some younger boys coming through, so at the moment I’m focused on putting my hand up for selection for Connacht, try to play well here and stay fit.”

Thornbury was highly-rated as he came through Leinster’s academy to earn a development contract for the 2015/16 campaign, only for injury to ruin his season.

As he returned to fitness, former Leinster defence coach Kurt McQuilkin linked him up with New Zealand club side Border, Thornbury making enough of an impression there to earn selection for the Wanganui provincial team, in turn helping them to win the Heartland Championship – the tier below New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup.

While he was playing a good standard of rugby, Thornbury says the experience in New Zealand was beneficial for more than his skills. With various jobs, including labouring and working in a meat factory, alongside his training, it was a new chapter in his life.

“It was probably the best decision I’ve made, going down there. I really enjoyed my time and it was an eye-opening experience. I got to do stuff I wouldn’t have done if I’d stayed up here.

“I learned about the working world, it was eye-opening to see how much dedication it takes to go from working 7 am to 5 pm and then going training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, playing games.

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“You learn to enjoy the game a tad, as well. It had gone quite serious quite quickly for me after school so when I was in New Zealand, it was just nice to be among people playing rugby for the love of it.

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“Not that you forgot it, but it was a change of pace and just taught me to enjoy what you’re doing every day, to be thankful for it, because there’s a lot of worse jobs you could be doing.”

Thornbury returned to Ireland to complete his studies and soon heard from Connacht, with forwards coach Jimmy Duffy and team manager Tim Allnutt meeting him and convincing him to join late on in the 2016/17 season.

Steve Crosbie, who had also played in Wanganui, helped him to settle in and Thornbury soon felt part of the Connacht family as he quickly re-adapted to professional rugby.

Though last season was a rather unhappy one collectively under Kieran Keane, Connacht appear to be back on track so far in this campaign under new boss Friend.

“Andy came in and was very positive, everyone was enjoying coming in right from pre-season,” says Thornbury.

“He’s very up-front and he’ll talk to you, tell you what he’s thinking, what you need to be doing, and if you’re not getting selected, he’ll tell you why. Even if you are selected, he’ll tell you why and what he wants to see from you. 

“He’s also a good bloke, which makes it easier to communicate with him. He makes an effort with everyone, even your friends and family. He’ll come over and introduce himself to your parents, so he’s a good bloke outside rugby as well.”

Gavin Thornbury The 25-year-old was involved in an Ireland camp in August. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Thornbury is also enjoying working closely with forwards coach Duffy, who has helped him develop into the lineout calling role, a duty Thornbury shares with Roux and Cannon.

“Jimmy has been absolutely fantastic,” says Thornbury. “He’s pushed on my game a lot, he’s had confidence in me since I first came down, and he’s a brilliant coach.

“A lot of it has been around the lineout, so calling, teaching me to see different pictures, pushing me in training, putting me under pressure.

“He’s taught me about the contact area too. Being a tall lad, it takes a lot to get your body height right, so he’s been great there. But it’s just nice to have that confidence from him, it helps a lot.” 

Confidence has been key for Thornbury in showing his quality on a consistent basis. Having been able to largely avoid injury until the AC issue recently, the towering second row is coming into his own.

Connacht’s head of athletic performance, David Howarth, has helped Thornbury to be more diligent than ever with his recovery habits, while there has been some luck in avoiding the serious injuries that crippled him at Leinster - ”I’ve had enough bad luck at this stage.”

And nailing down his detail with Friend, Duffy and attack coach Nigel Carolan means Thornbury can launch himself into every play with that new-found belief.

“There’s just a bit more confidence now. A massive amount of it is being able to play, you know your role and you’ve got confidence in that. You can then focus on the specific skills.

“I don’t have to worry about, ‘What am I doing next?’

“It just happens and I can focus in on the carry, the clean, the tackle, and it’s that moment instead of worrying about where I need to be.”

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