From building sites to Pro 12 final, Connacht's Tom McCartney quietly building his reputation
Aki is grabbing headlines, but another Kiwi is making an impact at Connacht
Published 27/05/2016 | 02:30
Pat Lam has only been back to New Zealand once in the three years since he took over Connacht and the trip was strictly business.
In 2013, towards the end of his first season in charge, the former Samoa captain travelled across the world in the hope of convincing a couple of players to come and join him in the west of Ireland.
The highest profile name he secured was that of All Black centurion Mils Muliaina, but the two most important signatures he secured were those of Bundee Aki and Tom McCartney.
The Samoan centre has been a sensation since he first arrived in Galway, but aficionados of forward play have quietly been admiring the former Auckland hooker who has slotted into the Connacht front-row and become a leader in the team.
With his big carries, monstrous tackles and spectacular tries, Aki was always going to hog the limelight. Accurate throws, powerful scrummaging, efficient rucking and an effective carrying game don't carry the same cachet, but McCartney seems equally as likely to play for Ireland when the pair qualify through residency in the autumn of 2017 and could well be the first-choice hooker come the 2019 World Cup.
However, that's far from his mind this week as he prepares for his adopted province's first final and he is happy to let this compatriot hog the headlines.
"I'm not sick of it at all, to be honest. My biggest accomplishment is seeing the team do well and if accolades come with that, then I'm happy enough," he said with a smile. "Bundee's taking all of the spotlight, he's playing really well. He's been awesome for us, so I've got no qualms at all about giving him the credit."
For all that Aki is getting the credit outside the Connacht squad, McCartney's name creeps up just as often when the players are talking about key leaders within the dressing-room.
At 30, he is one of the most experienced players in the dressing-room with a bank of Super Rugby experience with the Blues under his belt. During his time at home, he was coached by Lam, Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora and won a National Provincial Championship in 2007 alongside Isa Nacewa.
It's not bad for a player who spent his late teens working on building sites having come up through the less fashionable Howick College, missing out on an Academy contract out of school.
He believes that his time spent as a labourer hardened him for life as a professional as he faced a choice whether to keep pursuing his rugby ambitions or settle into the social game.
"It was quite interesting. I probably trained my hardest of my career in the year or year and a half before I was called into the Academy system, when I was still working and doing all of my training myself," he recalled.
"That was the hardest I ever trained and, when I finally did get into the Academy, I did find it easier because of all the training I'd been doing by myself. When I got in there I was probably ahead of the other guys.
"I was building as well, so it was pretty full on. I'd train in the morning, go off building and then training at night and I think a lot of people are lost through the net in New Zealand at that stage. If you're not picked up in the Academy pretty early, guys sort of give it away or just play socially.
"If anything, that was the making of my rugby career really. No one was telling me to do it, no one was telling to get out of bed in the morning; it was all off my own back."
It was Schmidt and Nucifora who spotted him playing in a trial match and brought him into the Academy, where his proficiency in the gym earned him the nickname 'The Freak' from his team-mates at the Blues.
His first professional coach at Auckland was Lam.
"He was probably a bit more full-on than he is now. He has, if anything, relaxed a bit now which always goes with the results, I suppose," he said. "When things are going really well, it's easy to be relaxed so you're not under too much pressure. Across the board, he's a better coach now.
"As with anything, you learn as you go through and when things don't go right you probably learn more.
"I was coached by him in 2006 and I remember from the first time I had sessions with him I was like, 'Wow, I've never had a coach like that before'.
"I'd say since then he's gotten better, things don't always go well in rugby. It's not always in your control either, but you can learn from it.
"I was involved in a pretty tough year with him in 2012, I definitely learnt a lot from that as well. He's a better coach now."
When Lam visited McCartney on that visit home, he was selling a simple vision.
"Basically, his message was that it was a young group of guys who are really talented," he recalled.
"Probably, in the past they had sort of struggled with resources and being the poor fourth brother of the other three provinces and that there's a lot of guys coming through with really great attitudes who are working hard and have got a lot of potential.
"Then, yeah, when he kind of came back over I was playing at the Blues and the rugby wasn't really going the best there.
"I'd been playing for eight seasons there and it was time for a change and a new challenge. It has definitely been that, coming to a whole new country and a different way of going about things, a different culture. The timing kind of worked out well."
He has settled in Galway with his wife Taryn, who carries an Irish passport through her Cork-born grandfather, and the couple's young son Marlon was born in Galway last year.
He insists representing Ireland was not part of the equation when he agreed to join, but it was certainly on the IRFU's minds and he is open to the idea now that his date of qualification is looming into view.
"Initially, it was coming over to play for Connacht, buy into the vision and try and play as well as I could here," he said. "After the three years are up, I'll sit back and reassess. If Connacht still want me and if I ever was picked for Ireland, then I'd be over the moon.
"Playing for Ireland didn't come into it at all. It was playing for Connacht as well as I possibly could and hopefully win some trophies. It's been amazing to get into that position so quickly.
"The three-year rule is there and after being here for three years in Ireland, I'd definitely feel myself being a bit more Irish. My son was born here, my wife has an Irish passport as well and talking to guys like Nathan White, he says it's the best thing he's ever done in his career and he's really thankful for that opportunity. It's not at the front of my mind this week anyway."
That's understandable, there is more immediate business to take care of in Edinburgh tomorrow.
"Confidence is pretty high, we back ourselves," he said. "It's been an amazing season for us, but this is a one-off game, a final and it's going to be really special."