Chance of glory driving veteran prop to hit new heights
Injury-interrupted campaign can end on a real high for loosehead as he fights for his spot
After ten seasons with Connacht in the doldrums of the Pro12, Ronan Loughney could have been forgiven for thinking that his day would never come.
A Galwegian through and through, the 31-year-old prop came on the scene in the 2005-06 season, and has never witnessed his side finish above seventh in the league.
Last year Connacht broke new ground when they finished one spot outside the top six, but after their late-season collapse many assumed they had missed their chance at silverware.
Going into this season, Champions Cup qualification was the main aim and that looked a difficult task in itself, but 173 appearances into his Connacht career Loughney could be part of something special in the coming months.
Despite being dogged by injury this term, the once-capped Irish international has played his part as Connacht have stormed to the summit of the Pro12, and reached the Challenge Cup quarter-final.
It's interesting times at the Sportsground, and for the experienced heads like Loughney and captain John Muldoon, any sort of silverware would fulfil a lifelong dream.
"It's incredibly gratifying to see the team competing around the top. When I started it was a different set-up and team. There were only two or three faces involved in the whole team that are still there today," he says.
"Mul is the longest serving of the players, but there is Tim Allnutt and Conor McPhillips in the management. Then there's other guys like George Naoupu and Rodney Ah You who have given us a lot over the years.
"Being up near the top of the league is great after putting in a good foundation at the start of the season.
"But we haven't achieved anything. Last year our goal was to finish top six and we finished short of it. We are not counting our chickens, we realise how important this end of the season is, and we are taking it game by game.
"Winning silverware is something that you always think about. I have thought about it down the years. Most people thought the easiest option to win something would have been through the Challenge Cup, we have been in a semi-final and quarter-finals.
"It would be incredible to bring silverware back to Connacht.
"But it's great to see that's starting to become a reality, we are getting that level of consistency that's allowing us to be up near the business at this stage of the competitions."
Loughney has had a massive battle on his hands in recent seasons to get game-time, since he switched primarily to loosehead, with youngster Denis Buckley becoming an established force.
Buckley (25) has gone on to become one of the best performers in the Pro12, with many calling for his inclusion in the Irish set-up. Loughney knows he is competing with a serious talent, and Buckley has what it takes to go far.
"Denis has had a couple of brilliant years and he is playing great stuff again now since he has come back from his injury," he says.
"His strongest thing is being on the ball, he is well known for that. He is seriously disruptive in the 'jackal' and is a really strong scrummager. He just needs to keep doing what he is doing and it will bring him to the next level.
"But all across the front-row competition is one of the great things this year, that maybe we didn't have in previous years. Being able to rotate players around. . . And also lads know they need to have the best games because someone is breathing down their neck.
"There is depth there as well. A couple of young guys have been blooded this year like Conan O'Donnell, and have really done well. There is a bit of experience there even with the younger lads."
Loughney isn't one of the younger lads any more but at just 31 he still has plenty to offer as Connacht look to become even more competitive. He knows he needs to make changes to his own game accordingly and that will get him the extra game-time he craves.
"I'm really enjoying being part of what's going on. I'd like to be playing more, but I had hip surgery at the end of last year," he explains.
"I had a bit of an upper-back issue after. It was bothering me, and I missed a couple of games not long after being back.
"I've been back for the last five or six games. I'm enjoying it, it's unusual to be so involved at the business end of the season. Last year the focus was on trying to get top six, and that still is the focus. But there's a different dynamic to it as well with where we are placed at the moment. And the next two or three games are massive in deciding a lot of things.
"I'm one of the older lads in the team. This is my 11th year, and the age profile has gone down that bit in the last few years. It's funny being an elder statesman in the squad. I have become as professional as I have ever been, because you need to as you get older. But also I'm really enjoying it. Jimmy Duffy has had a totally different perspective. Just with the way you do things, train things and what you look for in your own game.
"That has been a breath of fresh air. It has been good working with him. Any opportunities I'm given I need to have as positive an impact as I can. Everything else looks after itself."