Saturday 23 September 2017

'Ireland has been a huge goal for the last couple of seasons'

The Big Interview: Denis Buckley

Denis Buckley is put his through his paces in training Picture: Sportsfile
Denis Buckley is put his through his paces in training Picture: Sportsfile

Daragh Small

It's going to be a summer of change at the Sportsground with one of the biggest turnovers on and off the field in Connacht since the game went professional.

Pat Lam's move to Bristol, where he will be joined by backs coach Conor McPhillips and head of fitness Paul Bunce, means that only forwards coach Jimmy Duffy remains from the coaching ticket which landed the Guinness Pro12 title a year ago.

There will also be big changes in the playing roster as new coach Kieran Keane takes charge, but such changes are also exciting for players who are staying on.

Denis Buckley is now one of Connacht's most experienced players, having topped 100 appearances for his native province this season, and he says that such changes present new challenges.

The signing this week of lock Gavin Thornbury, coupled with contract extensions for Eoin McKeon and Darragh Leader, is part of the process of preparing for next season.

Roscommon native Buckley has been a stalwart for Connacht ever since 2011-'12. The 26-year-old loosehead has played 116 times for the province and scored seven tries, and he's excited about a summer of change.

"It's a clean slate. For lads not in the team, they are starting on the same level as those Pat may have perceived as first choice," says Buckley.

"Hopefully we do sign one or two more quality players. If we do sign a decent loosehead that's great. Competition does a lot for a squad.

"If we do add, hopefully we add quality, and it will be interesting with a new coach. He will have a different perspective, and might want different things.

"We have a new backs coach coming in, and I am sure there will be one or two more whether it's S&C or a defence coach. That puts pressure on the guys who have started a lot. They have to put in a good pre-season if they want to nail down that starting jersey."

The most perplexing part of Buckley's career is how he hasn't been part of Irish senior set-up.

The former Creggs clubman starred at underage level for his country, but since breaking through to the Connacht senior side he has failed to get a call-up.

And although he does play in one of the most competitive positions in the country, Buckley remains confident his time will come, and he wants to keep on improving.

"Ireland is a huge goal, it has been for the last couple of seasons. In pre-season this year I wanted to try and get into the extended squads for November but with the timing of injuries it didn't work," said Buckley.

Improve

"I appreciate there is a lot of good looseheads in Ireland. But I am trying to put my hand up and maybe get on the summer tour.

"When I re-signed my contract here it was one of the big reasons. I wanted to give myself the best chance to win a few caps, you can't if you are abroad.

"I want to play for Ireland, and it's always the big goal even when you are in school, and then you break into the academy, and earn a few caps for the senior team.

"Hopefully I can get there. There are areas of my game I can improve. I don't think I am too far away, if I can fine-tune, and get my game consistently at a high level.

"A mark of a good international player is that they are consistent. It's an area that I am constantly working on and I'm working hard every day."

Despite Jack McGrath's inclusion in Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions squad, there is still Cian Healy, Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin to contend with if Buckley wants to get himself on the plane to the USA and Japan in the summer.

But for now it's all Connacht, and at the business end of the season, Connacht still have a lot to do if they want to reach next season's Champions Cup.

"It was a bit of a frustrating start to the season for me. We didn't have many pre-season games and it was straight into Glasgow. I got a knock in that game and missed the week after.

"I came back and then in the third game of the season I damaged a ligament in my knee and I was out for about five or six weeks. The first two months were a bit frustrating I didn't have too much rugby under my belt.

"But I came back and got past the 100-cap marker which was a big goal of mine. My game has improved and I have put in some big performances in that block of games in the middle of the season.

"In the last few weeks it has been frustrating results-wise. We got a good win against Edinburgh but the few weeks before that, it was just difficult.

"It has just been frustrating, you play and leave it all out there but you don't get the victories. Last season those were games that we were winning but this year for one reason or another we're just coming on the other side of the game without the victory."

It's a huge few weeks for everyone at Connacht , and even those on the way out will hope to ensure it's the best possible foundation for Keane and his incoming contingent.

"There is still a lot to play for. It's huge, you absolutely want to be playing in the Champions Cup. The big goal is international caps, but you want to be playing the best players and the Champions Cup is teams full of internationals," adds Buckley.

"It's huge and it's great the atmosphere and buzz it generates. You want to compete against the best teams and players. With a strong end of the season hopefully we can go and get Champions Cup rugby."

Irish Independent

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