Great green hope finally ready to deliver on potential
Ciaran Gaffney, star of Ireland U-20s World Cup campaign, is keen to make big impact after injury woes
When Ciaran Gaffney burst onto the scene at the World Rugby Junior Championships in New Zealand three years ago, he was expected to become the new star of Connacht but that hasn't come to fruition just yet.
A young Robbie Henshaw had made his debut for Ireland against the US Eagles the previous summer, and was starting to create a huge stir with his performances for Connacht in the Pro12 and in Europe.
And Gaffney was of the same mould - his exciting attacking forays were the feature for a brilliant Ireland U-20s side who qualified for the semi-finals of the tournament.
They were beaten by England and New Zealand before they finished fourth in the competition, but having played alongside the likes of Garry Ringrose and Cian Kelleher in an exciting Irish back-line, Gaffney look to have plenty of potential.
But this year, the 21-year-old Galwegians full-back has only played twice for his province in the Pro12. However, while injuries have put paid to his chances so far, things are gradually starting to pick up pace.
"Injuries have really hampered my progression and development. Looking back over the last three or four seasons, I have only played a maximum of 14 games per season," says Gaffney.
"Every year something different has set me back. I would definitely like to have got my chance earlier, but all I can do is get over them and look forward to the future.
"I was injured at the start of this season. I was out for four months with both my hamstrings. I feel like I'm only really feeling confident on them now, which is another two months down the line since I made my return. They are such fickle muscles and they can go at any stage. I am doing a lot of work in the gym to try and strengthen them up. I'm starting to feel confident again."
After the Junior World Cup in New Zealand, Gaffney had progressed on to the Connacht academy by the time he returned to the JWC the following season in Italy.
Despite his injuries, Gaffney's versatility gave him the opportunity to feature widely across the back-line for his club Galwegians and for the Connacht Eagles.
After years of place-kicking he has relieved himself of that responsibility for the time being.
"I was out-half all of the way up, I only moved to the back three in my first year out of school. Nigel Carolan reckoned that was the position for me," he explains.
"I was planning on doing it again this year but I tore my hamstring in pre-season. It ended up reoccurring two or three times.
"Since I have been back I have focused on playing rugby and getting through matches rather than putting a little extra stress on it through place-kicking."
But that's all he has ever wanted to do, and Gaffney was destined to play the game ever since his father, John, took him to training sessions at Glenina.
"I was four when I started. My dad was youth academy director in Galwegians. He managed the U-8s to U-18s. I used to go along with him every Saturday to training.
"One training session he convinced me to go out to the U-6s, and from then I loved it. My dad is the manager with Galwegians now.
"I did four years in the Bish, and then for my last two years I decided to go to Roscrea.
"The rugby was a big draw to Roscrea, the draw of the Leinster Senior Cup.
"I loved every minute of it down there, but I got injured and it was the start of a long series of injuries. I got injured at the start of fifth and sixth year and ended up playing about ten games in total in Roscrea."
In his final year Gaffney's Cistercian College Roscrea were knocked out of the Leinster Senior Cup by a Blackrock side led by Ringrose. And he then went on to link up with Ringrose in the Irish backline in New Zealand.
"In 2014, we got to the semi-finals and ended up losing to England. I loved that whole experience over there.
"I got on well with coach Mike Ruddock then, and he backed me. Going into that tournament I wasn't expecting much because I only got picked on a probables versus possibles games but it was a great experience.
"I went to the one in Italy the following year. It was a bit of a mixed bag, we ended finishing seventh. It was a bit of a reality check. We got New Zealand in the group stages, they ended up putting 30 or 40 points on us.
"By my second tournament I'd moved on to the academy. That was my first out of three years there, but I am into my final year now."
And after dealing with numerous injury setbacks along the way, Gaffney has found full fitness and he will hope to make a big mark before the season ends in 2017.
"The debut was against Ulster in Kingspan Stadium. Ulster are always really strong at home and it was manageable, the step up from Eagles and AIL, it's just bigger men running at you and you have less time on the ball but it's definitely manageable.
"With a new coach coming in I see it as an opportunity. Everyone starts on a clean slate. It's a chance to impress and I am really looking forward to it.
"I am trying to get my foot in the door and keep progressing and try and get a few more games before the season is over."