Bullocking No 8 eager to end long wait for silverware
Competition for places in back-row is driving former 'Jes' boy to produce his best in green
Published 26/02/2016 | 02:30
When Connacht finished 12 points behind Treviso and Pat Lam took over the reins in 2013, the potential to be top of the Pro12 after 15 rounds would have been laughed at.
Connacht were on the periphery of Irish rugby at the time, but the groundwork put in Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood laid the foundations for Lam to construct a team of contenders.
Back in the days when Connacht ended their season in eighth, and were well out of the reckoning, any Connacht fan would have bitten your hand off for leadership status at this stage in the season.
But with success comes expectation and an ambition to grow. It's something that has swept the Sportsground, and the team have come through their transitional phase to become challengers in the Pro12 and in the Challenge Cup.
Eoin McKeon has been through all of that. He made his debut in the 2009-10 season, and similarly he couldn't have dreamt of being in this scenario back then. But now he wants more.
The 24-year-old Galwegian has already left a big footprint on the rugby landscape, but after a couple of injuries this season, he now wants to put his head down and focus on becoming a better player.
Not only his mind, his body has changed too. Before McKeon worried about packing on the pounds and bulking up, now he has reached a comfortable size and his skills and fitness are far more important assets.
Outside of rugby he has transitioned through university, but wants to expand his horizons, and hasn't made his mind up about what lies ahead for him after the game is up - whether it be in finance or engineering.
Yet for this point in time, and for this season, McKeon is focused on one thing. He wants to earn a place in a highly competitive back-row, help Connacht through to the Champions Cup, and maybe even win some silverware at the end of 2015-16.
"It would mean the world to win something, I haven't won anything since I left school. Nothing professionally anyway, all the way up through the U-20s, I have never actually won anything. That's in the back of everyone's head this year," he says.
"I think we do have a chance of winning something. We won't get ahead of ourselves. We will take it day by day. We set our goal of top six in the Pro12, so we can qualify for the higher competition next year.
"We have been taking it game by game, I don't think we are going to get too ahead of ourselves at this stage. It is still early days, but it will be a nice cherry on top of a good season, if we do come away with some silverware."
McKeon may not have won any trophies in his time with Connacht but he has made 77 appearances for the province, and scored nine tries since his debut, seven seasons ago. He was also capped for the Irish Wolfhounds.
With Connacht's great start to this term, the former 'Jes' student would have hoped to push for bigger international honours. But injury robbed him of the opportunity to join his five Connacht colleagues in Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad.
He picked up a grade three ligament tear in his elbow, as well as a hip pointer injury.
However despite a scare last weekend, with the up-coming inter-pros in late March and early April, McKeon wants to push for a starting slot in the Connacht back-row, and then some big performances against his rivals for the Irish jersey.
"The competitiveness drives you on when you see the younger lads coming through and doing well. It's in the back of your head, and you are pushing on.
"I would love to be more involved in the inter-pro games and the big European games. They are really the games where you get noticed.
"When it comes to the internationals, that's where you want to be aiming if you want to be getting into that international squad. It's really just about putting in consistent performances week in, week out. That's really what I will focus in on."
His long-term friend and former schoolmate Eoin Griffin will return to Connacht for 2016-'17. McKeon is looking forward to linking up with him again as another home-grown talent is added back into the system.
"He would be a bit annoyed that he has been hounded with injuries over in London Irish. I know they had a transfer of coaches and all of that.
"It was a good move for him to go away for a year or two while he was young, get the experience abroad, and he will have an external view coming back to Connacht with how things are done. He will be happy to be back himself."
Griffin came through the Connacht academy along with McKeon and many more have been added to the conveyor belt this season. It's promising times for Lam's men.
"It's good to see it. It's good to the see the academy system working with these lads coming through. No more than myself coming through three or four years ago," says McKeon.
"It can be a bit daunting at times when you are making that transfer over from what is essentially an amateur academy system, to a full professional system. But it's good to see those lads coming through and making an impact."