Saturday 20 July 2019

Denis Buckley targets top honours after laying rock-solid foundation

Roscommon native sets sights on Ireland cap as legendary pre-season work pays dividends

Denis Buckley’s main focus is on nailing down the Connacht No 1 jersey
Denis Buckley’s main focus is on nailing down the Connacht No 1 jersey

Daragh Small

The return to fitness of looseheads Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne has given Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt even more to ponder in a World Cup year.

Healy's Leinster team-mate Jack McGrath has put in some stellar performances in the Irish No1 jersey, while Kilcoyne's Munster rival James Cronin has also been making waves.

But Connacht have one of their own candidates and despite not featuring in a senior international training camp so far this season, Denis Buckley is hopeful that a call-up might just be around the corner.

The 24-year-old has made 68 appearances for Connacht, scoring two tries, and is planning next season as the time when he makes the breakthrough, having featured internationally at schoolboy level.

"There are a lot of really good looseheads up there - Cian Healy is probably one of the best in the world and I don't think Jack McGrath is too far behind him," he says.

"Then you have the likes of James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne, they are not too far off that level either but I am fairly ambitious and Ireland is something that I want to break into and I definitely believe in my own ability and back myself that I can do it at some stage.

"To break into the national set-up is definitely a long-term goal of mine. It probably doesn't look like it will happen any time soon with the players that are there but maybe look at the cycle after the World Cup as an opportunity.

"That is when I will really try and step up and get into that set-up."

Buckley's rigorous pre-season training has become the stuff of legend at the Sportsground and after packing on the extra bulk he is an altogether different proposition.

Starting alongside Kiwi Tom McCartney with fellow Ireland hopeful Nathan White wearing No 3, he is part of a formidable front-row unit.

McCartney (29) is a new recruit, still in his infancy with Connacht but he has years of experience playing in Super Rugby with the Blues.

Similarly, White (33) plied his trade in the southern hemisphere before a spell with Leinster and Buckley knows their experience is crucial to his growth a player.

"It is great to have players like that in the scrum alongside you. They can lend their expertise when things aren't going so well and even when they are going well they can help you kick on and keep the standards up," he explains.


"They can say what went well and why it went well. It is a good thing to have when someone else can give their opinion during a game like that."

Buckley signed a contract extension in November and the new two-year deal will keep him at the Sportsground until the summer of 2017.

After winning his first cap under Eric Elwood, he came of age when Pat Lam arrived in 2013, and with Lam set to stay in Galway until 2018 Buckley is looking forward to learning even more from the former Blues coach.

Forwards coach Dan McFarland has been there through thick and thin and has been a particular inspiration.

"Pat has had a massive impact on me on and off the pitch. He has brought in completely new defensive systems that I hadn't played in before," says Buckley.

"Dan has been coaching me since I was 17 or 18. He has played in my position so he has always given me different ideas on helping me out. He has been my forwards coach for my entire professional career so he is probably the No 1 influence."

The Roscommon native began his career with Creggs RFC playing for the U-8s; he played there until U-13s and the next stop was Blackrock College.

It was the traditional progression for someone who had their heart set on playing rugby and he boarded until he was part of a Leinster Schools Senior Cup winning side in 2009.

But even before then his potential had been spotted and that only acted to fuel the fire as he continued upon his pathway to professionalism.

"At that stage I had been well in touch with Connacht, I had played for Connacht underage squads and development squads and even Leinster underage squads," he says.

"When you are playing to that level it is a goal for everyone there that you want to kick on and try and make a career out of it. Thankfully I was lucky enough that I got a great opportunity down in Connacht."

From there he went on to play two seasons in the Ulster Bank League with Corinthians after joining the Connacht academy from Blackrock, while he also undertook a commerce degree at NUI Galway.

He graduated from that in October 2013 and is currently in the process of adding a diploma in digital marketing to his CV.

But rugby comes first and he wants to focus on his short-term goals that he set at the start of this season: nailing down the No 1 jersey for Connacht is top priority.

"At the start of the year I wrote down goals, I wanted to be first-choice loosehead and I also want to keep on improving my game and be a better player at the end of the season than I was at the start," he says.

"If international honours come on the back of good performances for Connacht it is great but my main focus is being the No 1 loosehead for Connacht and putting in good performances and getting good results."

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