Ambitious local boy adds steel to Westerners' front line
Experienced prop leads the way for young guns coming through system at the Sportsground
With so much change in the Sportsground in the last couple of years, it's somewhat calming to have Ronan Loughney and a few more of his long-serving colleagues keeping the Connacht flag flying.
But everything about the Barna-based prop brings a serenity to proceedings. He gets on with his job without too much fuss, he's renowned as a master woodworker in his spare time, and he's not shy in banging out a tune on the guitar. But it all masks a fierce determination to succeed at rugby.
Two years ago, Loughney (29) won his one and only Ireland cap, during the summer tour to New Zealand. That was back in the day when just one replacement prop was allowed on the bench and his versatility and ability to work both sides of the scrum was his trump card. Now, he realises he needs to focus on either the loose or tight side of the scrum to succeed.
"I'd like to see myself playing a bit more loosehead this year. I enjoy more playing loosehead and I think I can offer a bit more around the park when I'm playing there," says Loughney.
"At the same time I'm ready to play tighthead if needs be and in the past that's where I've done well. When I was in national camp it was because I was playing tighthead but, absolutely, I'm ready to go on either side.
"I suppose I would be a relatively light tighthead as things go, but I think we've all put on a bit of size over the summer throughout the pack and throughout the squad as a whole. I've put on a bit of weight as well.
"It will be interesting to see how that weight will carry into the scrum, there will be a lot of leg-strengthening work done. You feel that bit stronger in the scrum and that's the difference. I'm looking forward to getting back into the scrums and to getting a bit of work done there before we kick off properly," he says.
When Connacht's most experienced prop Brett Wilkinson was forced to retire last season, it could have spelled disaster for the province. Like Loughney, Wilkinson had been on the fringes of the Ireland squad for a few seasons and losing a player of his talents was a huge blow.
However, at the same time, Rodney Ah You began to discover his undoubted talent, while a handful of young, hungry front-rows began to seep through the academy system. Suddenly there is a glut of talent around.
"There is a great mix of experience and younger talent coming through. I've been here a good while now, Nathan White is one of the more senior props as well but then we have the likes of Denis (Buckley), Rodney (Ah You), who obviously got capped for Ireland in the summer, Finlay Bealham and JP Cooney
"Finlay and JP have both had really good pre-seasons and they're going to be pushing hard for their spot. It's great to have that healthy competition for every spot, it ensures that everybody has to be on their best for getting selected. That's exactly what you want.
"Every year the academy seems to get better and better and we seem to see more players being called into the senior squad. And they all seem to be more and more ready each year too," he says.
The season after Loughney made his Irish debut he played 20 Pro12 games for the province and was a firm part of the team in Eric Elwood's last year in charge.
However, last season a series of short-term injuries - including a fractured eye socket before Christmas - caused Loughney to miss chunks of the campaign, hardly the best way to catch the eye of his new coach. But with a relatively uninterrupted pre-season in the bag Loughney is confident that he can finally show Pat Lam what he is capable of on the park.
"Last year was a bit of a pain injury-wise. I suppose I never had anything majorly serious but just as I seemed to be getting back from one knock and getting a bit of momentum and then another thing would knock me back.
"But I'm happy with my preparation for this campaign. Obviously in pre-season everybody tries to get stronger and put on a little bit more muscle mass and I'm happy that I've a couple of kilos of good weight put on."
Just as it did when Loughney got the call-up to Ireland camp, the inclusion of Ah You, Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion in the Ireland squad of late has given everyone involved in the club a massive lift. There are no green-eyed monsters in the camp; Loughney says he's delighted for his team-mates and that a spell in international camp can only benefit Connacht in the long term.
"Absolutely, we're delighted for Rodney and the lads, the more Connacht players you see in the senior squad like that, the more beneficial it will be to Connacht. You see those guys coming back to camp and there's just a different edge to them.
"There's a different intensity when you're up at national camp. The lads bring that back and it really pushes everyone else on to match that level of intensity. They would have learned a lot from their experience.
"Even though I only played a half hour when I was on tour in New Zealand I learned a hell of a lot from training, just the way things are done. The more players we have involved at that level, the more beneficial it will be to our team as a whole and the more it will push us along."
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