Wednesday 21 March 2018

Fifty up for former Baby Black who's keen to be a green giant

Dynamic flanker reveals Ireland ambition as he gives lowdown on 'exciting' Keane appointment

Kiwi flanker Jake Heenan has been a key part of Connacht’s recent success Picture: Sportsfile:
Kiwi flanker Jake Heenan has been a key part of Connacht’s recent success Picture: Sportsfile:

Daragh Small

As Jake Heenan prepares to join the 50-cap club at the Sportsground, the Kiwi flanker is eligible for Ireland and everything points towards a future international cap.

He signed for Connacht in 2013, played a big part in some of the province's biggest days, and the 24-year-old was at the heart of the run towards a first ever Pro12 title last season.

It was one of Pat Lam's first pieces of business when he enticed Heenan to follow him from Auckland Blues.

And despite three shoulder surgeries along the way, the Whangarei native has fulfilled his potential to become one of most accomplished No 7s in the Pro12.

"In some aspects I have played some of the best rugby I have ever played this season," says Heenan.

"There are still parts of my game that I need work in and I can still develop my whole game. But I am really, really enjoying my rugby at the moment."

And that's the general consensus around the Sportsground after a couple of months where a few poor results left Connacht on the brink.

Their old foes from Toulouse knocked them out of Europe in heart-breaking fashion. And a dismal run of form over Christmas has them struggling to secure a top-six finish in the Pro12, to guarantee Champions Cup rugby next term.

A bonus-point victory over Zebre tonight would push Connacht ahead of seventh-placed Cardiff, and would represent a return of 18 points from a possible 20 during the internationals window.

But next time out Heenan could well be joining the rest of the Irish contingent in Carton House. He has long been mooted as a Test-class No 7, and would be thrilled to wear another green jersey.

"I would love to break into the Irish set-up," he says. "When I was a young fella I always wanted to be the best player in the world. I want to play on that stage and compete against the best players.

"It's definitely a goal of mine and something I would love to achieve. But I'm really enjoying my rugby here. To get ahead of myself and worry too much about that would be detriment to what I'm doing.

"To give myself the best chance and what's most important to me with my rugby is that I enjoy it. I need to focus on what I'm doing here, and then build performances that will take care of themselves.

"I've had contact with Joe Schmidt. For me it's more a case of having that connection so that I can go to him if I need to. Or I can touch base and say: 'what are your thoughts on my game? Where do I need to go to from here?'

"Then he can help to influence my game, so it's in line for what they are looking for from an Irish No 7."


And the potential call-up to an Irish camp isn't the only exciting prospect that lies ahead of Heenan in 2017. He believes that fellow Kiwi Kieran Keane was definitely the right choice to succeed Lam as Connacht coach at the end of this season.

"It's probably as good an appointment as we could have hoped for," he says. "I have never worked with him directly but I saw what he did at Tasman, and I watched a lot of the rugby they played, and it was exciting.

"I haven't heard a bad word about him, so I'm really looking forward to it. Everyone who has worked with him has really enjoyed it and raved about what he has done with their team.

"Kieran has a good reputation back home. He will want his team to use the ball and score tries, and play an up-tempo game and have a crack when it's on.

"It most likely won't be the same outline that Pat had, which you would expect. You'd expect a different coach to bring a different game, but the same basic philosophy should be there. We will be trying to score tries, we will want to use the ball and play an up-tempo game."

But Heenan is quick to stress that n-one at Connacht has turned their attentions to next season just yet. There is still plenty to play for in 2016-17, with qualification for the Champions Cup to the forefront.

"We separate his appointment from what we are doing this year," he says. "That is exciting next season, but right now we have another game that we need to win.

"And coming into the next block we need Ws on the board so we can get back into the top six, and back into the Champions Cup for next year. It is exciting and I'm really looking forward to working with him. But for now it's just about getting wins."

It's so important that Connacht continue to play in the top tier of European rugby next season. And it would provide Keane with the perfect base to flex his tactical muscles against northern hemisphere's elite.

"We have just got to start winning," says Heenan. It's really as simple as that. As long as we hold that belief that we can do it, then it's week to week preparing as best we can for each game. And then trying to deliver the best performance we can at the weekend.

"It's really exciting to come in, adapt and to look at a different style of rugby. Pat has been my only fully professional coach so for me it's really exciting.

"What we are doing, we have built for the last few years. And we are at a place now where our culture and rugby is all directed along the same way and we are in a good place.

"Even if we haven't had a great run of wins the team is in a good place.

"I don't think the change was needed but it's an opportunity we can build on."

Irish Independent

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