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Connacht veteran Swift eager to dole out 'hard lessons' to Ireland U20 heroes

The likes of Sean O’Brien, Peter Robb, Rory Moloney and Ciaran Gaffney will be pressing for senior squad inclusion next season.

Nathan White, Michael Swift, Jake Heenan and Ronan Loughney sporting the Connacht training gear that features new sponsors Life Style Sports.
Nathan White, Michael Swift, Jake Heenan and Ronan Loughney sporting the Connacht training gear that features new sponsors Life Style Sports.

THE CALLIPERS HAVE already been out, the body fat measured and, on Monday, the hard work of burning off summer’s excess will begin.

Michael Swift is preparing for his 15th pre-season at Connacht Rugby and was happy to get the early physical out of the way. “You stand there in your boxers while a nutritionist pokes and prods at you and the other lads slag you over how easy you took it since the last game of the season,” Swift told TheScore.ie.

Connacht’s southern hemisphere signings — Mils Muliaina, Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney — do not arrive until October but there are several new faces already at The Sportsground ahead of 2014/15.

“There are exciting times ahead,” said Swift. “We’ve made seven or eight good signings. Last year was a bit of a cull and we got rid of a lot of experienced players. I was quite close to a few of them but, they and I know, that’s the nature of sport. Nothing lasts forever.”

The 36-year-old lock is playing with Connacht on a one-year rolling contract and, despite the departures of veterans Dan Parks and Gavin Duffy, says he was not too concerned that his time would be up at the season’s end. He is delighted that Duffy has been retained at Connacht in a business and marketing capacity and jokes that the former fullback has shed his rugby weight by ‘sprinting around those big, wide GAA pitches’.

Next generation

With so many senior players leaving the province, Swift says the opportunity is now there for the younger players to fill the vacuum. “Nothing brings experience like playing games and with that comes authority. There may have been some lads, in the past, who may have been afraid to step forward and speak his mind. Now is their time to step forward.”

Although they may not break through as starting XV regulars this season, Connacht’s ranks are bolstered by five players that either featured for Ireland U20s in last season’s Six Nations or the recent Junior World Championship, where Mike Ruddock’s side finished fourth. One player who may directly challenge Swift is lock Sean O’Brien, who was set to captain the U20s in New Zealand until injury intervened. Swift said:

The gap of transitioning from the academy to the senior squad is narrowing all the time. It can only benefit us that we have lads coming in for the new season with experience in the Ireland jersey behind them. That can only help their confidence. Still, as senior players, it will be our job not to make things easy for them. We’ll be eager to get those lads into tackling and full-contact sessions. The lads who’ve been around a bit will be looking to hand out some hard lessons.”

The veteran lock definitely notices a change in how young players train and build muscle and mass away from the rugby pitch. “I was 19 years old when I started playing with Richmond, while I was studying at Loughborough University. There was no such thing as a weight or fitness plan. I hadn’t lifted a weight until the following year when I signed with Leeds Tykes.”

Jake Heenan, Nathan White, Michael Swift and Ronan Loughney Swift shares a joke with his Connacht teammates at the announcement of Life Style Sports' four-year sponsorship agreement. The sports company replaces Mazda as jersey sponsor with the 2014/15 kit launched in August.

Swift played three full seasons in England before making the switch to Connacht in 2000. He is amazed at the progression the game has taken in the last 15 years. “When rugby first went professional, the clubs thought it would be like football; that they would be getting 20, 30-thousand through the gates each week. Richmond were throwing money at players and so were Newcastle — they were both in the second division.

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“After a couple of years, the bubble burst. What happened to the likes of Richmond was a wake-up call. Teams that were throwing stupid money around had to get a grip. I thought those days were over but it’s happening again in the Top 14.”

The change in Champions Cup qualification for the upcoming season meant Connacht would be cut adrift from Europe’s elite competition in 2014/15. Swift welcomes the change and believes the Pro12 league will benefit from the increased competition for top six places.

He said, “People have said Connacht would struggle with first-past-the-post. I disagree, 100%. It is great for the league to have that added competition. It should add to its profile and it will be interesting to see if the top clubs rest big players when Champions Cup seedings come down to league form.

“It got to a state where the European Cup was overshadowing everything else. The focus will be on the league from the get-go and we are eager to put ourselves in the mix.”

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Patrick McCarry

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