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'Tom will certainly be in with a big shout to play for Ireland'

Connacht hooker Tom McCartney would be eligible for the national team in 2017.

BUNDEE AKI’S POTENTIAL eligibility for Ireland in 2017 has already sparked many a conversation, but the possible qualification of one of his Connacht team-mates has gone somewhat under the radar.

Tom McCartney may not grab the headlines as often as Aki, but the New Zealand-born hooker has arguably been just as important a signing for Connacht.

Connacht’s Tom McCartney chased by Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton McCartney was superb in last season's Pro12. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Pat Lam lured the man they call ‘Freak’ from Auckland to Ireland on a three-year deal in October 2014, meaning McCartney would be in line for Ireland qualification in 2017 if he extends his contract beyond next summer.

Many are excited about the prospect of Aki in an Ireland jersey in the 2017 November Tests, but perhaps McCartney is a more realistic proposition.

He turns 31 early next month, but the former Blues hooker was simply exceptional as Connacht drove to their first-ever Guinness Pro12 title last season. The western province begin their new campaign against Glasgow this Saturday in the Sportsground, and McCartney is going to be key if Lam’s men are to back up their historic feat.

McCartney is the best lineout thrower in the country already, while his power and toughness make him very effective in contact. His ability to play loosehead – which we saw last season – is another useful attribute.

The Auckland man is also an excellent ball carrier – his linebreak and near-try against Leinster in last season’s Pro12 final was a highlight – while his defensive work is muscular and energetic too.

Even with age against him, McCartney has a fine shot at becoming an Ireland international in 2017.

“I was having a beer with Tom one night,” says Connacht captain John Muldoon, “and he said his biggest regret is that he didn’t come here before two years ago. I think the way the rugby is played up here suits Tom.

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Tom McCartney and Bundee Aki McCartney and Aki could both qualify for Ireland next year. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“He’s technically very good, a very, very good squad man, very good with all the younger guys in his position; helps out all the props, talks to all of them and keeps coaching them and teaching them different stuff.

“He’s been a big addition to us.”

Muldoon and Connacht are eager to add to the number of internationals in their squad over the coming seasons, and the back row has little doubt that McCartney can reach Test level.

While Aki is the superstar, McCartney has been quietly and consistently impressing everyone in Galway.

“Obviously, Bundee gets a lot of accolades for what he’s bought, but I think probably Tom is the silent assassin for what he brings to the squad,” says Muldoon. “The sheer number of minutes that he plays shows that he is very durable as well.

“I think, definitely, if he keeps playing the way he is, when he becomes Irish-qualified, Tom will certainly be in with a big shout to play for Ireland.

“He was very unfortunate in that near-try against Leinster last season, but he has a lot of strings to his bow. Lineout throwing is one of his strong assets, but he offers an awful lot else other than lineouts. He’d be an addition to any squad.”

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Murray Kinsella

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