Friday 9 December 2016

The Big Interview: Tom McCartney - Kiwi hooker has quickly become keystone of Lam's pack

Powerful at set-piece and in the loose, former Auckland No 2 is hungry for success out west

Daragh Small

Published 05/02/2016 | 02:30

Tom McCartney is determined to reach his full potential with the province Photo: Sportsfile
Tom McCartney is determined to reach his full potential with the province Photo: Sportsfile

The Sportsground is a happy place right now, and not just because it gets a week off to recoup from training, but because the environment around the Connacht squad has never been better.

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Winning breeds fresh optimism, and in their most successful season and on the back of arguably their best win this term, Connacht will return to their Galway stomping ground full of confidence next week.

It's a province famed for its family-like atmosphere, where the camaraderie between the players is second to none. The constant flow of home-grown talent through the academy onto the match-day 23 plays a big part.

As does the influx of foreign talent who fit in seamlessly, minus the big egos that come via the massive price tags. One such acquisition is hooker Tom McCartney who arrived last season.

A traditional hard-working No 2, there are no frills attached to McCartney. And the Kiwi embodies all that's good about life out west in 2016.

Of course a bonus-point victory over the Pro12 league leaders boosted the confidence before the break. And that was the performance that encapsulated the togetherness of this Connacht unit.

The pack stuck together like glue, their maul indestructible, their scrum unstoppable and the stats told their own story at the end of the day.

Connacht were six from six on their own ball at scrum-time, 12 from 12 at the lineout. But it was the way they bullied their opposition forwards around the pitch from start to finish that would have been so pleasing to Pat Lam and forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.

Despite a glute injury that hampered him this season, he was out for just under two months after he touched down his first try for the province against Treviso, McCartney has notched up 11 appearances for the province.

It's now 31 caps so far for Connacht and the ex-North Harbour star feels right at home now. Lam, who gave McCartney his debut at the Blues, brought him in to do a job. And with the competitive nature of the Connacht squad, and the friendly atmosphere to boot, he has gone from strength.

"It's important that you are enjoying what you do. As much as it is still a game, and I would be playing rugby whether it is professional or not. At the end of the day, you are doing it as work," he says.

Banter

"It is important that you are coming and enjoying yourself even if results aren't going as well as you want. You come in and put a smile on your face and work hard. Enjoying the company around you, with a bit of banter goes a long way towards that.

"There's no egos here. Occasionally guys are going to have different issues with different guys and that's just human nature.

"The important thing is, if there is an issue then guys will front up quickly and be honest. You can sort it out and move forward from there.

"It's a bit naïve to say that there is never going to be any disagreement, because we are all competitive and it's a professional environment.

"We are fighting for spots at the end of the day, so the important thing there is we talk about the things pretty quickly, don't let them fester, move on and try and get the win on the weekend."

McCartney who captained Auckland in the ITM Cup in his final year down south, is a proven leader.

But despite bags of experience, 64 Super Rugby caps, he still isn't assured a place in the Connacht starting 15.

He is the main man, but with Jason Harris-Wright, and youngsters Shane Delahunt and Dave Heffernan for company, 'the Freak' doesn't have to time to get comfortable.

In every training session he looks to impress the Connacht coaches, and add another string to his bow. But he says competition throughout this Connacht squad is crucial if the team wants to continue to move in the right direction.

"All of the hookers are fighting for that spot. Jason, Dave and Shane have played really well. We all get on really well, it's not like we don't talk to each other in training or anything.

"We try to help each other out as much as we can. It's only a couple of injuries and you are down to the bare bones. So that's what we do to try and help each other, for what's best for the team.

"Over the time I have been here, I have had a lot to do with the younger guys like Heff and Shane Delahunt. Most days off during the week, we will meet up and go through an hour of extra throwing. Just talk through different scenarios, and have a little bit of a competition at the end.

"We have a bit of banter but it puts each other under pressure. Even though it's just a competition on a day off, it's still about win or lose. It's been good to work with those guys."

And as Connacht enter the business end of 2015/'16 they need every player ready to slot in when called upon. But even with injuries, and one of the smallest squads in the league, they are on target to reach their goals.

"As a team we have got a massive focus on the top six which is a bare minimum. But we want to be top four and pushing towards the play-offs in the Pro12.

"We put ourselves in a really good position. We have a long way to go, but our destiny is still in our hands and our goals are achievable."

Irish Independent

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