Dave Heffernan: The late bloomer from Connacht tipped for a call up to Joe Schmidt's Ireland
Switch to hooker turned Connacht star's career around
Back in 2009, when schools teams were celebrating cup success it wasn't part of the ritual to conduct a poll identifying those destined for the next step: the pro game.
So when Blackrock beat Terenure in the Leinster schools final that year, nobody was declaring publicly they were on the road to stardom. Pity, because if that particular group had been offered Lotto figures to name the famous five set to earn a living from rugby in Ireland, they still would have got the wrong combo.
Brendan Macken would have been short odds all right. And Jordi Murphy maybe not too far behind him. The same for Denis Buckley and Andrew Conway. But for the last in the quintet you'd have to trawl to the end of the Blackrock bench that day. And settle on the name of Dave Heffernan. Would anyone have taken a punt on him?
"Jesus no! I would have been the last," he says. "I didn't even have a specific position. I wasn't deemed good enough for the back row for the school team so I would have been just covering second row. I was pretty fit and stuff so I think they just stuck me in there more than anything. I was on the seconds for most of the year."
So already his has been an unlikely career. And all the better for it, for anyone who manages to slip into the net long after it has been cast is good for a game hell bent on early risers. Closing in fast on his 26th birthday, the Connacht man is now recognised first and foremost as a hooker, and secondly as a player with real potential to play at Test level. Given his journey, this is worth noting. There have been a couple of twists along the way to lead him to where he is now.
At each point neither he nor those close to him could have seen the destination. Growing up in Ballina, Heffernan played rugby from minis with the local club, but if you had seen him you wouldn't have been marking anyone's card about your discovery. He was in from the ground up too with Stephenites GAA club. His genes dictated both, for his dad Ivan played in the back row for the rugby club and kept goal for Mayo, winning an All-Ireland under 21 title with the county, as well as two Sigerson Cup medals with the brilliant UCD team of the mid-1970s.
When you look at his cv and note the trouble he took to up sticks, leave home, and the local Gortnor Abbey school, and board in Blackrock, you infer some serious ambition in the young fella. Doesn't sound that way though.
"I had no connection with the place whatsoever," he says. "It was always kind of the plan to go to boarding school after the first three years (of secondary) - rugby had nothing to do with it. I played mini rugby all the way up in Ballina but I wasn't particularly good at it - by no means one of the star players on that team. And even when I went to Blackrock I remember the first year I was on the fifths or sixths or whatever, and just slowly, gradually, eventually made my way up to getting close to the bench for the first team. I was only on the bench for the senior cup team."
The Connacht connection came in handy though. It opened the door to the provincial under 18s, which in turn tuned Blackrock into the idea that he might have something to offer. It continued to the Connacht 20s, and between that and captaining Lansdowne 20s in his second season out of school, Heffernan was on the radar. It got him a cap for Ireland at that level - in a hammering by France in the Six Nations - but he was injured when it came to the World Cup that summer.
Getting in to the Connacht Academy was his first big step towards a pro career. His mother wasn't wild about his decision to park a commerce degree in UCD to head back west, but by now she's happy with the way it worked out: he finished the degree in his own time and is now doing a masters through distance learning. So what could go wrong?
Eh, the stuff on the field wasn't so easy. Although the first season in the Connacht Academy went well enough - he trained with the seniors most of time and got a run against the Scarlets - the next season looked nothing like it.
"It didn't go well and I wasn't really getting a look in at all," he says. "And around November/December that year I was walking in after training and Billy Millard, who was our backs coach at the time, just kind of pulled me aside and suggested I move to hooker. He said I could potentially be a pretty good back rower but that if I moved to hooker I might have the potential to play internationally. It was completely out of the blue. I didn't know what to say at the time."
Having consulted his dad and a few others, he said yes. What other way could he have gone, for when a coach makes that suggestion, the code is you have no future without changing position.
It's a road well enough travelled by back rowers - shifting from six or seven up to two - and no one finds it easy. The irony is that in season 2014/15, when Heffernan was really struggling, he got the call for the Emerging Ireland side heading to Georgia for a tournament with Uruguay and Italy.
"That was huge for me. That was after that tough season I'd had and I was completely out of favour in Connacht. I got huge confidence from that tour because I was really questioning whether I had made the right call at that stage. I remember towards the end of the season I really wasn't enjoying my rugby and was completely shocked to get on the Emerging Ireland squad. I only found out when they released it to the press. I was in the gym at the time and someone congratulated me. I was looking at them like they'd two heads. I didn't know what they were talking about. I just assumed it was a mistake."
Having a former hooker, in Allen Clarke, as head coach on that trip was a bonus. Suddenly two weeks in Georgia turned into an extended hooker tutorial. Heffernan came back a new man.
"That was a big turning point for me, and I think the coaches got good feedback as well. They started to have a bit more belief in me. It made a huge, huge difference."
Still, nothing reduces hookers to gibbering wrecks like picking up the ball for a lineout and wishing they were in the dentist's chair instead. Two seasons ago injury opened the door for Heffernan to get in early in the Guinness Pro12 campaign. Against Edinburgh he was hauled off at half-time. An injury to his replacement Sean Henry meant he had to get back on the horse the next week against Leinster. That was a struggle as well. Two games later, against Cardiff, it all fell apart.
"I had a complete meltdown. We won about 50 per cent of our own ball that day and I missed a few crucial ones. We ended up drawing that game. They scored in the last couple of minutes, which was frustrating. I remember meeting up with Enda McNulty a few weeks after that and had a good chat with him. There have been multiple setbacks and bad days but being a hooker you just have to focus on the next job the whole time. It's not the nicest position in the world to play some of the time, especially when things aren't going well. But this season in particular I think I've got quite good at putting bad things behind me, and just focusing on getting the next one right.
"When I was coming through first - it's not so much an issue anymore - but initially you can almost sense the lads don't have that much confidence in you. And that brings that extra pressure and you kind of doubt yourself. That was the toughest bit. Now the lads expect me to throw pretty well, but you can kind of see in people's faces when you're having a bad day, people are second guessing their calls - some of the second rows are going: 'Jesus is he going to get this, will I change the call to suit him?' The first couple of years were pretty tough for that, but you learn to deal with it."
Heffernan's performance against Ulster in October really put him on the map. Clearly Tom McCartney, who had his own waiting to do when backing up Keven Mealamu in Auckland, is ahead of him, but Heffernan could well find himself in the frame when Ireland tour the US and Japan this summer.
For now he needs to get more minutes to stay on that trajectory. Making an impression in Europe would be ideal, for Connacht's Pro12 title retention looks a busted flush. The Champions Cup, however, is a different story and Zebre in Galway next weekend should carry a bounty of five points.
"We want to get out of the group, big time, and we've a good chance now," he says. "That was one of our goals at the start of the season. It's neck and neck the way the table is so it'll be right down to the wire. This is my first season playing Champions Cup so it's pretty cool. Just the atmosphere and the players you're playing against, it's a higher standard so you have to be on the ball. I've just really enjoyed it."
Jordi Murphy's cruciate ligament rupture has binned the chances of this schools quintet making it into the knockout stages of Europe at the same time, and with four different teams: Wasps, Leinster, Munster and Connacht. If Murphy was fit you'd have thrown a few bob on the perfect outcome after an unlikely start.
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