Last men standing in Europe, Connacht go in search of a Challenge Cup semi-final place tonight. Despite their success, flanker Eoin McKeon believes he and his team-mates must work harder than rivals for Ireland honours
Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30
The sportsground has always been part of Eoin McKeon's life. Growing up, his house overlooked the Galway venue, while as long as he can remember his father, Gary, has been volunteering at the gate for Connacht matches.
As soon as he was old enough, the youngster was getting involved himself and used to patrol the touchlines as ball-boy. Indeed, long before his dreams of taking to the field as a professional player in the green jersey hardened into reality, he had already spilled blood for the cause - kind of.
"They were less strict about how close you could be to the pitch," he recalls. "I remember I was passing balls with another ball-boy and there was a ruck close to the touchline and I was just in touch - they kicked the ball, Connacht winger Ted Robinson came rushing through and he absolutely cleaned me out of it.
"I was so winded, I passed out. I woke up and there was 10 lads around me, holding my neck. I was like, 'I'm fine!' but they took me off in an ambulance to the hospital to get checks. I was fine, just winded.
"He dropped over to the house with a signed ball and all of that, it was nice of him. That's my first memory of being up here. I was just happy to get a signed ball and a bit of free gear!"
This week, McKeon sat in an office at Connacht's headquarters and contemplated the route that young fan has taken to becoming a central figure in the province's greatest season.
For all that a kid can dream, there are few of his vintage who could have predicted the western province's rise into Irish rugby's fourth force and most exciting team under Pat Lam.
He was part of the new generation brought through by Eric Elwood alongside Tiernan O'Halloran, Kieran Marmion, Eoin Griffin, Denis Buckley and Robbie Henshaw who have accumulated a large amount of provincial caps at a young age.
At 24, the Galway native is eyeing a green jersey of a different hue after amassing 80-odd appearances for Connacht. Against Leinster, he was the dominant force in a seismic clash, making 24 tackles and nine carries for 49 metres in a display that earned him a man of the match award.
Despite that accumulation of experience, McKeon has been frustrated that his international ambitions have not progressed beyond the Wolfhounds cap he earned last year and he wonders whether the players based out west still have to do a bit extra to earn Joe Schmidt's trust.
Certainly, Buckley, O'Halloran and Matt Healy can count themselves unlucky that they weren't involved in the Six Nations given their form and McKeon is putting himself in the frame for South Africa with a string of impressive displays.
"Myself, Kieran Marmion, Tiernan, Denis Buckley - we're all around the same age, all going to be pushing that 100 mark pretty soon," he said. "When you're hitting 50 caps at 22, 23 it's a good sign.
"I also found that sometimes - possibly not this year - but I would have had a lot more caps than some lads from the other provinces and they'd be getting the international nod. I'm thinking, 'I've played so much more games, but they're there purely on the basis that they're playing for a different province'.
"There's been a few times where I felt a bit bitter. I'd have played 10 games in a row, played really well and some lad who's had three starts for Leinster gets picked ahead of you. That's changing, with the success of the team. It has to be reflective, if the team's not doing well it's only natural that there's not going to be as many lads getting picked."
Like any Ireland hopeful, McKeon has to be careful with his words on this topic; but he admits his perception that Connacht players simply have to work harder for recognition.
"You can't ignore raw talent and Robbie, Ulty (Dillane) being a freak, Finlay (Bealham) just coming on leaps and bounds," he says.
"I can't complain this year, I've missed a lot of games in the middle part of the season. If I had played through that block and hadn't gotten the nod, then I probably would feel a bit more bitter.
"Do we have to work harder? I think so, it still is at that stage where we have to kind of push that little bit more.
"You could go on for days comparing players, but at the end of the day Joe is going to pick whoever he is most confident with. Leinster lads have an advantage, because he knows them well.
"If you get too focused on getting the pick for Ireland, you lose sight of your first job which is to play well for Connacht and that's how you get picked."
Coming up with Coláiste Iognáid and Galwegians, McKeon ticked all the boxes as a future Connacht player, winning caps at every age grade for Ireland up to and including U-20s. Yet, while he was mapped from a young age, it wasn't always plain sailing.
"Nigel (Carolan) offered me an academy contract before I'd finished school so I knew, 'Right, this is what I'm going to do'," he recalls. "You'd know lads that were ahead of you, doing the same thing, you'd see them and say, 'I want that too', but in my first year I was a bit immature.
"You don't realise how you've one foot out the door when you're on a development contract; you're not nearly the finished article.
"I probably didn't take that year as seriously as I should have and I'm pretty sure I came close to losing my contract.
"That was sort of the realisation that it takes more to go from amateur to professional level. You see it time and time again, lads who can't make that step up. It's a big mindset shift.
"After that first year on development, I realised that, 'Jesus, I was almost gone there'. I was last in a long list of lads to be kept on. The following year, I had my breakthrough season and from there I signed my first two-year pro.
"It's a long-winded way of saying that it was set out for me, but at the same time there was a stage where I was in the middle ground and had to say, 'Right, am I going to make something of this?' It was the kick up the backside I needed to really push on.
"Dan McFarland sat me down and said: 'You have potential, but don't let it pass you by', I might have even dropped down in salary on my development contract and I'd a few heated words with Eric (Elwood) at the time.
"I was only 19 or 20 when this happened, so talking to the head coach about money was a tough thing to do - I didn't have an agent or anything.
"It wasn't said that I was nearly out the gap, but they didn't have to say it; I knew myself. From then, I got a bit of cop-on and moved forward from there."
That cop-on helped him force his way into the first-team the next season, but his breakthrough came amid the province's first season in the Heineken Cup; a year of few high highs and many lows that was captured in the brilliant documentary 'The West's Awake'.
Sitting in the midst of those deep, introspective meetings with pained players expressing their frustration at long stretches without wins was a coterie of youngsters who were privately happy to be involved and, having gone through that extreme, are now leading the province through a very different type of season.
This weekend, Connacht are the only Irish team remaining in Europe, while they continue to ride high in the Pro12 despite last weekend's reversal at the hands of Ulster.
McKeon has seen at first hand what the recent success has meant to the people of Galway and he doesn't want the run to stop tonight.
"My family are my No 1 fans anyway, so regardless of how we've been doing they've always been involved," he says.
"Dad does the gate for all of the home games for free. A couple of them, they do it to kind of give back to Connacht. Mum would be at every game, my aunty would be up with the banners.
"After the Leinster game I went into town for a bit of food and a drink and I'd 10 people come up and congratulate me, saying well done.
"There's a lot more people. No more than anywhere, people want to be involved and want to share the success. It's satisfying being able to give back to the fans that have been supporting us for years when we haven't been doing so well, now that we are going well.
"It'd be pretty sweet (to finish on a high). I'd be pretty confident that we could do a job (in Grenoble) and I'd be pretty disappointed if we don't."