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McCartney keen to prove himself Connacht's vital Kiwi connection

The 29-year-old hooker is already learning from the coaching of Pat Lam and Dan McFarland.

BUNDEE AKI AND Mils Muliaina have grabbed more of the headlines, but Tom McCartney may yet prove to be the most important of Connacht’s Kiwi imports.

Tom McCartney McCartney is swiftly winning over the Connacht fans. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The evidence of the hooker’s first five appearances for the province underlines that assertion, with McCartney’s technical ability complemented by dynamism in contact and growing strength at the set-piece.

The 29-year-old himself is “reasonably happy with how things are going” so far, but Connacht fans can rest assured that Pat Lam has made a convincing signing.

After a brief stint with North Harbour, McCartney’s professional career kicked off under Lam’s coaching at Auckland in 2007. The pair then linked up at Super Rugby level with the Blues from 2009 until 2012, when Lam left that job.

Their paths split briefly, but Lam was intent on working with McCartney again.

We obviously must have had a decent relationship since he wanted to bring me over here as well!” laughs the affable McCartney.

“We hadn’t kept in touch a hell of a lot, but at the end of my ITM Cup season last year [2013], I got a random call from Pat and he said he was interested in me thinking of coming over.”

Like most rugby-playing New Zealanders, McCartney’s oval-ball dream revolved around the pinnacle of playing for the national team.

“When I spoke to Pat I still had another year in New Zealand. When I was playing there, my goal was always to try and make the All Blacks. As far as that was concerned, I knew I had one more year to do it.

Tom McCartney and Alan O'Connor McCartney makes a powerful carry against Ulster last weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I’d been playing Super Rugby for about eight seasons. If I didn’t make the All Blacks, I was pretty keen to go and experience a new competition and a new culture, see a different part of the world.”

The call from Steve Hansen never came and despite interest from elsewhere, McCartney was lured to Ireland by Lam’s vision for Connacht.

The hooker admits he “didn’t know a hell of a lot about Connacht” before Lam initially contacted him, but the head coach’s ideas were persuasive.

“He told me it was a club on the rise, a good bunch of guys and that they all work really hard for each other. There’s a really good base to build off and really improve.

I went away and had a think about it, watched a few games, and got wind that there were possibly another few guys coming over from New Zealand. They were good reasons for me to come and be involved in that whole vision.”

That McCartney’s wife has strong Irish links – her grandfather having been born in Cork – was a further encouragement. However, Auckland native McCartney says the prospect of qualifying to play for Ireland was “not really” a motivating factor in moving.

Still, a three-year deal with Connacht would leave him available for national team selection in 2017, although time is perhaps not wholly on his side.

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“For me, growing up in New Zealand you always want to play for your country and in terms of coming over and doing three years and playing for Ireland, it wasn’t really the reason that I came.

Tom McCartney McCartney's wife has roots in Cork. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“But after three years, if the opportunity came up then you definitely wouldn’t turn it down. I’d probably feel a lot more Irish by then and my wife’s got those Irish roots as well, so there is that connection.”

More immediately, McCartney has a top-six finish in the Pro12 on his mind, as do all at Connacht. Lam is deservedly being credited with sparking the improvements at the province, but forwards coach Dan McFarland is also behind much of the good work.

The one-time Stade Français prop has overseen Connacht’s incremental improvements in the pack, as their set-piece continues to go from strength to strength. McCartney is appreciating McFarland’s influence.

He’s very technical and he knows what buttons to push,” says McCartney. “If guys aren’t quite doing their jobs properly, he’s not afraid to get stuck into guys and tell them what they need to be doing.

“If they’re doing things well, he’ll give them a pat on the back as well. In terms of the technical side of things, I’ve been really impressed and I’m enjoying working with Dan. I’ve definitely picked up a lot of things I’d never thought about back home since I’ve been here.”

Chief among the learnings for McCartney – whose nickname at the Blues was ‘Freak’ on account of his strength in the gym – have been those around the set-piece, which takes such primal importance in this part of the world in comparison to his homeland.

“There’s a massive emphasis here on the set-piece and I think they do a lot of things better here than they do back home,” says McCartney. “The set-piece is just so important, whether there’s a lot of scrums and a lot of kicks for touch.

“If your set-piece isn’t working, then you’re going to come under huge pressure. If it is working well, you can really use it as a weapon. Technically, there’s a lot more that goes into it and it’s been great to learn a little more.”

Tom McCartney McCartney was a late arrival this season due to ITM Cup commitments in New Zealand. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Differences between hemispheres aside, that a 29-year-old with eight seasons of Super Rugby experience behind him is learning new things from Connacht’s coaching staff speaks volumes of the progress in Galway.

Next up for McCartney is learning what success in an inter-provincial clash tastes like. Defeats to Leinster and Ulster haven’t been fun, but Munster arrive at the Sportsground tomorrow and McCartney will be part of a ferocious welcoming party.

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Murray Kinsella

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