Rising prop eager to get back in time to play part in run-in
The Big Interview: Conor Carey
Since the retirement of Nathan White at the start of this season, fellow Ireland international Finlay Bealham has become the main man on the tighthead side of the Connacht front-row. But Conor Carey looks like a more than capable challenger for the No 3 jersey.
However the 25-year-old Belfast native is currently out injured, and it couldn't have come at a worse time in the season - he left the field at the Sportsground during Connacht's sensational Champions Cup victory over Wasps.
At that stage Connacht looked set to qualify from their pool, with the potential of meeting Irish opposition in the final eight in Europe. That didn't go according to plan either and a big injury list cost Connacht around Christmas and into the start of 2017.
Bealham left for Irish camp and Carey missed out on the chance to lay down a marker against the best the Guinness Pro12 and Europe has to offer. And the former Methody student is disappointed he didn't get his opportunity.
"I am still a few weeks off, but hopefully I'll get back before the end of the season. I want to just contribute and be a part of it towards the end, and try and get us into the Champions Cup again," says Carey.
"It has been frustrating. I was lucky enough that I got a good run when I came back from my injury at the start of the season. They gave me the opportunity and I got to play those ten games.
"It has been frustrating, missing Toulouse, missing Ulster away - and that was one I really wanted to play in. More recently that Glasgow game would have been a good one. But I just have to focus on the rehab right now.
"I tore ligaments in my right foot. I had just come off the bench against Wasps and played about ten minutes, but then unfortunately, Finlay had to come back on because I stepped off it.
"I felt an electric shock up my foot. I got up and tried to run it off and couldn't put any weight through my foot."
Carey has played ten times for the province - and scored one try, against Zebre - since he moved from English Championship outfit Nottingham before the start of 2016-17.
After a brilliant start to his Connacht career, which included a 49-minute hit-out against one of the best scrums in Europe - Toulouse - in Galway. Carey became a regular in the match-day 23, before injury struck. But now he is focused on becoming a better rugby mind, off the pitch.
"It's hard watching the guys play, but you want everyone to do well," he says. "A few of us injured lads watched the Toulouse away game together and even though we weren't over there we had a great atmosphere in a restaurant.
"You really try and encourage people and help out in any way you can. I try and get to every scrum session, and units meeting. I try and put something into it, some information I have. I just want to be involved in it.
"I will definitely come back a better rugby player; my knowledge has grown, about the Pro12 and the different teams in the league.
"You watch different scrums, and what other tightheads are doing, watch what we can do against other looseheads.
"You take a step back, and then you visualise what you would do in those situations."
It has been a period of reflection for Carey, and he feels more well-rounded as he looks to get game-time before the end of 2016-17. However, even when he returns to full match-fitness, Bealham is standing in his way.
"I love working with Finlay. I have known him since we were 18," he says. "There is a lot of competition here, with four very good tightheads. There are a lot of good players but everyone works very well together.
"One of my reasons for coming back from the Championship was to get a look-in with Ireland at some stage. I could have stayed over in England, but every Irish player wants to play for Ireland.
"Every player wants to test themselves at higher levels and find out how good they actually are."
Connacht had Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O'Halloran in the starting line-up for Ireland's 52-21 hammering of Canada in November.
But if they want to continue that trend, the team must perform at the top table in Europe.
Getting into next season's Champions Cup would also give the new coaching team a platform to build off, and Carey is excited about working alongside new head coach Kieran Keane, and continuing to build on what he has with forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.
"It's brilliant that he is staying, Jimmy has done so much work with me this year," he says. "I owe him a lot for taking me to this next level, and Pat Lam as well. Jimmy has worked a lot with me on my technical aspects, and my angles.
"He does so much extra video with me. We have front-row meetings as well, where we all have an input.
"Also with Nigel Carolan, I haven't worked with him yet, but having him around the place, it's good for everyone and keeps the bit of continuity within the club.
"And with Kieran, you look how good the Chiefs are in attack. We won a Pro12 last year, and hopefully we can emulate that and go further in the Champions Cup.
"You want to build on where Pat has brought the club. He has brought Connacht so far from where it was. That is what you are hoping, that Kieran is going to take it on to the next level."