Monday 27 March 2017

The Big interview: Dave Heffernan - Tbilisi tour gives huge lift to Mayo hooker on the way up

Former back-row sees gradual improvement and is still determined to become first choice

Dave Heffernan: ‘We left a few results behind us last season which cost us’
Dave Heffernan: ‘We left a few results behind us last season which cost us’

Daragh Small

After an up-and-down 2014-'15 season, Dave Heffernan never expected to be called up to Emerging Ireland squad for their Tbilisi Cup adventure. But after a positive tournament in Georgia the Connacht hooker feels reinvigorated this term.

The 24-year-old did not lose any of the hunger to make it to the top of the game, but his surprise inclusion in Allen Clarke and Girvan Dempsey's touring party gave him a timely confidence boost.

It had all started so well for him with Connacht, but as his lineout percentages slipped, and Shane Delahunt emerged from the academy, the Ballina native had to learn some tough lessons.

However, a few weeks spent in the presence of ex-hooker Clarke, helped re-focus the mind. And when Heffernan returned for pre-season he had a clearer mindset about what he wanted from this season.

Top of the list is being part of the Connacht set-up more regularly, he also wants automatic qualification into the Champions Cup. And finally he hopes to pull on a more senior Irish jersey in time.

But for now he is fully focused on making himself a fully-fledged hooking option for the coaches, rather than having to rely on the unavailability of others in order to make a mark.

"I want to really establish myself as a hooker this year. Over the last year or two I have been in a lot of squads. But a lot of that has been down to injury to other guys, but this year is the year I want to stamp down my own marker on it, and really push Tom McCartney, Jason Harris-Wright and Shane Delahunt.

"I want to be in contention for Irish squads as well if that opportunity comes up. That's another thing, obviously I have a long way to go to get there, but I want to establish myself as a serious prospect at hooker and a serious option for the coaches.

"Throwing was obviously a problem area for me last season, but it has improved consistently. I would put a lot of that down to Allen Clarke. I just have a lot more confidence in myself. I have put a huge amount of work into it, even last season I was focusing on that part of my game.

"I have been training a bit more effectively and efficiently this year with it. I have a lot more confidence out there, still not where I want it to be, but there is definitely more consistency there, especially in training.

"I have been a lot more confident and I am hitting a higher percentage of my targets this year. It's not perfect, but it is improving and I definitely feel like I am making progress."

Defining

The former Blackrock College student has made 40 appearances for Connacht and scored one try since his debut season in 2011-'12. But he feels the Emerging Ireland tour could have been the defining moment of his short career so far.

He played two games - as a replacement in the opening 25-0 win against Emerging Italy, and he started the 33-7 victory over Uruguay. Heffernan also regards the influence Ulster hooker Rob Herring as paramount to his improvements in 2015-'16.

"It was really enjoyable experience. I learned a huge amount from Allen Clarke. As an ex-hooker I was able to tap into some of his knowledge, and I really found that hugely beneficial because he was the first coach I have had that has been a hooker.

"I have been playing there for two years now, and to have that experience, and little tips and bits of advice he was given me. I found it great for me. I really appreciated it, Rob Herring was really helpful too. I learned a huge amount and a lot of that has stuck with me coming into pre-season and into this year."

And with Connacht this year the main focus is the Pro12, and ensuring they gain qualification to the top tier of European Rugby. Last season's painful Champions Cup play-off defeat to Gloucester still lingers.

It is something the players have used to push them even further in training, and with Connacht currently top of their pool in the Challenge Cup, and riding high in the Pro12, it looks to have worked.

Heffernan was a replacement in that Gloucester game, and had experience the agony of their 40-32 extra-time downfall first-hand. It is something he never wants to have to go through again.

"There was a lot of ups and downs last season. It started off reasonably well for me and then I struggled for a while. I went through with a bit of bad patch.

"Since last Christmas I have been happy with where I have been going, but there has been a fair amount of improvement generally. I still have a lot to work on, and I am not really happy exactly with where I am at the moment. But I do feel like I am making progress.

"To make the Emerging Ireland tour was a big bonus for me, but it didn't make up for how the season finished off with Connacht. Things didn't go as we wanted as much in the second half of the season. We left a few results behind us which cost us.

"While we did make progress from the season before we didn't get what we wanted. That is a huge, huge motivating factor this year. We don't want to be in a situation where we are facing into a play-off or not even getting into the play-offs.

"We want it to be completely in our hands. It is a huge driving factor for us this year. Automatic qualification is the goal this year, 100 per cent."

Irish Independent

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