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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 5 June, 2020

Heenan taking things slowly as Connacht look for rapid improvement

The 22-year-old openside flanker tells how he works on his breakdown skills.

Heenan first came across Connacht head coach Pat Lam in New Zealand.
Heenan first came across Connacht head coach Pat Lam in New Zealand.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

“WHERE ARE YOU coming from? How was the journey? Ah, Dublin’s nice for a big city, eh?”

Jake Heenan likes to begin an interview on his own terms, similarly to how the openside flanker operates on the pitch. The 22-year-old [surely going on 32, such is his maturity] had an impressive campaign last season in Connacht, his first in Ireland.

The New Zealand native originally met Pat Lam in 2010, when he played for the Blues’ Secondary Schools side at the same time as Lam was head coach of the Super Rugby franchise.

That relationship eventually led to the ex-Samoa international convincing Heenan to make a “huge” leap and move to Ireland in 2013. The fact that Lam was the “only coach who really backed me and said he wanted me” made the decision easier for Heenan.

Having captained the New Zealand U20 side at 2012′s Junior World Championship, the Whangerai native’s All Blacks dream looked very much alive, but competition for professional places was fierce in Heenan’s homeland and Connacht swooped with a three-year contract.

It has turned out to be an intelligent move on Lam’s part, with Heenan delivering a string of excellent performances for the province last season and showing rugby fans out west exactly what a seemingly-natural openside flanker can offer.

Not that Heenan has been practising the dark arts of seven-ship all his life.

I was all over the shop, I was a bit of a mongrel,” says the Kiwi tells when asked about his positional background. “I was a prop until I was 15, I was a little fat kid. I eventually started going up and stopped going out.

“I had a season or two at lock and then it got to the stage where I wasn’t tall enough for lock or big enough for prop, I was a bit nowhere.”

Mils Muliaina, Jake Heenan and Robbie Henshaw 3/9/2014 Heenan poses with Connacht teammates Mils Muliaina and Robbie Henshaw.

To the eventual fortune of Connacht, Heenan was moved into the back row, when the Blues’ underage coach Richie Harris convinced him that openside flanker was the best fit for his skillset and work-rate.

If it hasn’t been a lifetime of practice, how is it that Heenan looks so comfortable around the breakdown and in is rucking? The 22-year-old explains that he has his own methods of refining those technical skills.

“I like to do a lot of training at walking pace, a lot of contact training at a slow walk. It’s quite strange, I suppose, but it’s almost a trigger in your head and a little bit of muscle memory, and you’re not bashing yourself around during the week.

The big ones would be the jackal ball and the arrow ball. I like to get myself in different positions and just feel where my feet are strongest, feel my body like that and almost just move around until I find a position that’s my strongest to stay there.

“Boys are coming in, trying to get rid of you and you’re in your strongest position. I like to do that a few times until I can get in that position quickly. In a game, someone gets pulled down and you can just snap straight down into that position.”

Heenan clicks his fingers as he describes the sensation of clamping down over the ball for a steal or hitting a ruck in attack, his determination to win those contests coming across even in a relaxed setting at Connacht’s Sportsground headquarters.

He watches fellow professionals closely, “sees things other players do,” and then attempts to add those abilities to his repertoire. As with any New Zealander, and most self-respecting back rows in the world, Richie McCaw is always a fascinating subject to study.

Jake Heenan Heenan was among Connacht's standout players last season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“McCaw is probably still the guy I look to,” admits Heenan. “There are some excellent sevens around – Aussie are pumping out a lot, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony is another guy who is playing excellently.

“McCaw has such a rounded game. He’s been a great captain for such a long time, and a cool-headed man. Tactically, he knows the game very well. He has such a wide range of skills and is still very physical. He’s a tall seven and he’s the man I like to model my game on.”

Qualified to play for native New Zealand, England and – from 2016 – Ireland, Heenan has as much desire to play international rugby as any player. He points to the quality of Joe Schmidt as a coach and says he would “like to be in the Irish set-up come the end of my three years.”

For now, the Kiwi is rapt that his decision to join Lam at Connacht has lead to a range of new experiences. Visits around Europe whenever he has the chance are now the norm for Heenan, although he is keen to tick Belfast’s black cab tour off his bucket list next.

I’m seeing the world, meeting awesome guys and that’s huge for a young man. A lot of people back home doing the same thing aren’t getting that opportunity.

“My brother played for Tunbridge Wells in the UK and was playing in Dallas. He’s probably doing what I’d be doing - travelling the world, playing rugby and drinking too much beer – if I wasn’t doing this.”

Connacht open their Pro12 season with a clash against the Dragons at the Sportsground this evening. Kick-off is at 17.00.

Connacht: Shane Layden; Niyi Adeolokun, Darragh Leader, Dave McSharry, Danie Poolman; Jack Carty, Ian Porter; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Nathan White; Mick Kearney, Quinn Roux; John Muldoon (capt.), Jake Heenan, Eoin McKeon.

Replacements: Sean Henry, Finlay Bealham, Rodney Ah You, George Naoupu, Willie Faloon, Kieran Marmion, Miah Nikora, Conor Finn.

Dragons: Lee Byrne (capt.); Tom Prydie, Tyler Morgan, Jack Dixon, Aled Brew; Jason Tovey, Jonathan Evan; Boris Stankovich, Elliot Dee, Lloyd Fairbrother; Andrew Coombs, Rynard Landman; Lewis Evans, Nic Cudd, Andy Powell.

Replacements: T. Rhys Thomas, Owen Evans, Dan Way, Ian Gough, Taulupe Faletau, Dorian Jones, Geraint Rhys Jones, Barney Nightingale.

Mazda has confirmed that it will continue its long-term support of Connacht by becoming Official Car Sponsor, providing a fleet of over 55 Mazda cars to the squad.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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