Words by Dan Connor

As Connacht return to the Sportsground this weekend against Benetton Treviso, following a six-week absence from their home ground, there can be no doubt that a so far successful season remains fully on track.

Whilst away, the boys in green have maintained their top-six challenge in the Guinness PRO12, which was supplemented by the 30-25 triumph over Newport Gwent Dragons last Sunday, and they have also secured an exciting trip to Gloucester in the Quarter-Finals of the European Rugby Challenge Cup.

And one member of the Connacht squad is aiming high after his return from injury. Jake Heenan, missed the first half of the season with a shoulder injury but is back into the thick of things with his third consecutive start coming this afternoon in Galway.

Heenan sees no reason why a place in the top six cannot be achieved, and he also wants to go the distance in the Challenge Cup.

“There’s seven rounds remaining and I don’t see any reason we can’t beat any of the teams in the PRO12, so that’s what we’ll be aiming to do every time we play. We’ll also be looking to go all the way in the Challenge Cup. Obviously we’ll take it one game at a time, starting with Gloucester, and we’ve still got some difficult matches before we turn our attention back to it, but we want to go as far as we can. Of course, we want to win every game between now and the end of the season.”

Heenan certainly sets high standards for himself and his team-mates. While most would relish simply returning to the pitch after a lengthy injury, the blossoming openside has little time for sentiment of that form – he wants to win.

The 22-year-old has praised Connacht’s strong campaign to date, but is overwhelmed to be back in the mix, and is ready to start making an impact on upcoming games.

“It’s awesome being back, and it’s a really important time to come back because there’s so much happening with the team, ” he added.

“So it’s not only great to return, but to be doing so at a time that I can influence matters.”

Heenan reinjured his shoulder in the opening round of the competition back in early September but has remained close to the team effort by undertaking analysis on upcoming oppositions, contributing in leadership meetings and traveling to away games where he would ‘run water’ and deliver messages from the coaches to the players on the pitch.

“When you get injured like that, it is what it is. You get on with it. It was disappointing, but I didn’t really think twice about it, I just got on with the surgery and focussed to the best of my ability on coming back from it. There was nothing I could do, except work day-in-day-out, and I got it right.

“It’s been really good on the field; the squad have been playing well. The noticeable thing in comparison to last year is the amount of boys putting up their hand to play first-team rugby, and they’re all capable of it. Although I believe we’ve got some way to go, the level of performance and professionalism is increasing. Compared to where we were this time last year, it’s really exciting.”

Parallel to Heenan’s lofty ambitions for his club side, it comes as little surprise that the former Under-20 All Blacks captain has his sights set on senior international rugby.

His appetite to achieve that feat was moistened further when the Ireland national side arrived for an open training session with the Galway men recently and, despite his New Zealand roots, it could be an environment that becomes somewhat familiar to him in the not too distant future.

“It was good to welcome the Ireland team for a training session. It was nice to break the routine and do something different. The idea behind us training against them was to bring a new level of intensity and a slightly new focus on raising the level. I really enjoyed it.

“Even more so, it was great for the community, for everyone to come out and see. I believe I’m right in saying the Irish squad had never had an open training session in Galway, so it’s fantastic for us as a club, but also the whole province and Irish rugby.

“Obviously playing international rugby is a huge goal for me but right now I am concentrating on playing and improving with Connacht as I still believe I have a lot of work to do.”

With ambition in abundance, but humility in equal measure, Heenan hasn’t struggled to adapt to the way of life on these shores.

Despite unfamiliarity with the conditions that are occasionally thrown in the way of northern hemisphere rugby, Heenan has become part of the Galway furniture, and brought a refreshing scent of optimism back into what has already been a highly successful season for Connacht.

“With regard to the style of rugby, there wasn’t much difference other than certain things I wasn’t used to. Before I came here in 2013, I think I’d only played one game in the rain, so it’s just having to adapt to that and also what is a much longer season. But the big one is dealing with the wet and cold!

“Outside of the rugby as well, I’ve really enjoyed it; Galway is such a nice town. It’s very easy to talk to people and get along with them. I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”


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