Friday 30 September 2016

'I want to play for Ireland and I won't make any secret about it' - Connacht's in-form loosehead Denis Buckley

Connacht's in-form loosehead Denis Buckley refuses to be disheartened by omission from Schmidt's latest training squad as he vows to keep on improving

Published 16/04/2016 | 02:30

Connacht's Denis Buckley (SPORTSFILE)
Connacht's Denis Buckley (SPORTSFILE)

Like nearly every professional rugby player in this country, Denis Buckley's ultimate goal is to represent Ireland but his claims of doing so far outweigh those of plenty of other uncapped hopefuls.

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Earlier this week, Joe Schmidt named a 44-man training squad for a one-day camp that begins tomorrow and the omission of Buckley (25) is one that will have surprised anyone who has tracked his progress this season and indeed last.

The Roscommon native is now in his fourth full season with Connacht and his consistent excellence has been one of the highlights of a thrilling season for the Westerners.

Schmidt isn't exactly short of options at loosehead but with Jack McGrath cementing his place as one of the world's best, there is very little to choose between those behind him.

Cian Healy is a shadow of his former self as he continues to try and recapture his best form, while Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin have been part of a Munster side that has struggled all season.

Relentless

Connacht's Denis Buckley
Connacht's Denis Buckley

It is Kilcoyne and Healy who got the nod this time as Buckley was once again overlooked for an Ireland squad.

It's a frustrating time for the former Blackrock College student whose scrummaging has not only improved immeasurably but also his powerful ball carrying and his relentless workrate.

Buckley represented Emerging Ireland last summer and although he feels as if he is ready to take the next step, he is fully aware that he has plenty of improvements to make in his game.

A second-half yellow card in the defeat to Grenoble last weekend proved costly but it is something that he will undoubtedly learn from.

"Obviously I'm ambitious and I want to play for Ireland," Buckley enthuses.

"I won't make any secret about that. In terms of what I can do to get there, I suppose first of all, my big focus is to keep getting selected for Connacht and keep improving my own game.

"If international recognition comes on the back of that, well that's a big goal for me and I hope it does but I'm not worried if I get selected or not for Ireland, my big one is that I keep getting picked for Connacht and putting hard work in here.

"I'm reasonably happy (with form). I certainly think that there are areas I can improve on, particularly in the last few weeks, just consistency in some parts of my game.

"If I was asked if I was satisfied with how my season has gone so far, I'd probably say it's okay but definitely a lot of room for improvement. I'm striving to make those improvements every day.

"I'm constantly looking to improve and I know I can definitely take it up another level or two."

This evening at a sold-out Sportsground, Buckley will go up against Cronin and Kilcoyne, who starts on the bench for Munster in a crucial Pro12 clash.

Schmidt has never made any secret about the importance of inter-provincial derbies and although Buckley will be eager to get one over on his Irish rivals, he is keen not to lose focus of the bigger picture.

"There are individual battles but look that's not how I try and think about it. I don't think too many of the lads here think about it," he says.

"It's pretty clear to everyone that if you consistently play well then higher honours will come but it has to be your focus to consistently play well for Connacht.

"If recognition comes off the back of that, then great but the number one goal is to keep performing well for Connacht."

Buckley struggled with his weight when he first broke into the senior side as, at 98kg, he was considerably smaller than the giants he was scrummaging against.

Four years later, he has hit his target and although he feels as if he can still add another couple of kilos, he knows the importance of striking the right balance, as it is his speed that also makes him such a dangerous carrier.

"My first one or two seasons when I was breaking into the team and maybe trying to establish myself as first choice, I was playing at just under the 100kg mark, which is probably too light for this level, particularly the way the game has gone over the last few seasons," Buckley explains.

"I'm up to 110kg which is probably an ideal weight for me. Look, I wouldn't mind possibly pushing it to 112 or 113 for next season.

"One of my strengths is probably my mobility so if I can carry an extra three or four kilos next season then that's something I want to do. It's hard to get the right weight on.

"I don't think going from 100 to 110 has really affected me so hopefully a few more kilos won't hinder me too much either. One of the hardest things is getting the weight on. It's particularly hard during the season to get some good weight on with the volume of running in training."

As someone who used to stand in the terraces and as a former mascot of the club, Buckley (left) has witnessed first hand the upturn in Connacht's fortunes.

This evening's game against Munster has long been a sell-out, with plenty of disappointed supporters looking for tickets this week, while next year's season tickets are also being snapped up at a rate of knots.

It's a far cry from when Buckley first joined the Academy but it's not something that has blossomed overnight.

"When I first came here Connacht were more or less the bottom team in the Pro12 but when Eric (Elwood) took over as head coach and started to build, we slowly moved up the table," he recalls.

"I think the big thing is that it's been built on the work that Eric has put in and Pat (Lam) has built on top of that. It's a lot of hard work that's starting to come into fruition, which is pleasing.

"There is a great buzz around the place and a great following of the team but it's not just this season, it's been the last couple of years.

"I suppose when you're top of the league, you get a few more people jumping on which is great. It's great for the squad.

Focused

"Within the squad, it's quite a close group and we've been working hard to create a culture within the players and management that's focused on winning and focused on doing a lot of hard work to get to where we want to go.

"It's completely in our hands so this weekend is a great opportunity to play in the Champions Cup next season, if we beat Munster at home.

"We do get questions about how far we can go this season. Can we make the play-offs? Can we get a home semi-final?

"But look, how we think about it is, we've got three games left. If we win all three, we get a home semi-final. But we'll park the other two games. The massive focus now is Munster."

The focus for now may well be on Munster but come tomorrow evening when the Ireland squad reconvenes, in the back of his mind, Buckley will wonder what more he has to do to earn the call.

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