Thursday 14 December 2017

Fresh start in Galway brings out the best in front-rower

New family, friends and team-mates sees Kiwi hooker reproduce his top form in green shirt

Tom McCartney: This season has been a step in the right direction for Connacht
Tom McCartney: This season has been a step in the right direction for Connacht

Daragh Small

It's been a case of sink or swim for Tom McCartney in his first season as part of the Connacht Rugby set-up.

The 29-year-old made his Super Rugby debut for the Blues under current Connacht coach Pat Lam in 2008 and up to the end of last term was a stalwart for the Auckland franchise.

The former North Harbour star can also play at loosehead prop and he showed that when he transitioned over following the departure of All Black legend Tony Woodcock.

But after 64 Super Rugby caps where he bagged two tries and 91 provincial appearances, McCartney looked to the Northern Hemisphere.

And as his first season at Connacht draws towards its conclusion, he will have little time to unwind with his first child, five-week-old son Marlon, set to keep him occupied over the summer months.

"It's definitely a learning experience, but I suppose it's a new chapter for me and my wife Taryn. Having him here, it's been awesome; it has been obviously a huge learning curve but having kids is probably be the best thing you'll ever do in your life.

"It has only been the last few games that I had to worry about the work/life balance. If I have got training the next day then Taryn is pretty good with taking care of him. I will put the earplugs in and she'll take care of him.

"If I have got a day off the next day, then she's pretty keen to have a bit of a rest and make me get up at night and feed him and do the nappies and that sort of thing.

"It doesn't impact too much on the training because I normally get a decent enough sleep the night before if it's a training day, but when it is a day off then normally I'm pretty shattered for those."

McCartney signed a three-year deal and has notched up 18 caps for Connacht since making his debut in the 43-3 Pro12 win over Zebre on November 21. Nicknamed 'the Freak' back home, he arrived at the Sportsground with the responsibility of providing more leadership to a young pack.

A cruciate injury to fellow hooker Jason Harris-Wright paved the way for his initial inclusion in the side and since then he has made a big influence on the likes of Dave Heffernan and Shane Delahunt who have had to act as cover.

But the Auckland native has thrived and says he definitely made the correct decision when he decided to leave his homeland in search of a new experience on the opposite side of the world.

"I've loved it here. It's been a different style of rugby, with the whole northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere which probably suits my game a bit better to be honest.

"I have loved seeing a different part of the world and travelling around seeing different parts of Ireland, the UK, France and even Italy last weekend.

"To get out of my comfort zone was great as well. I was at the Blues for pretty much eight years. When you're at one place for a long time you can get a little bit comfortable and then when you turn up at a new environment and you've got to prove yourself all over again.

"Basically people will look at your performance and then they'll judge off that. No one knows too much about your reputation or anything so it's been refreshing to come to Connacht and try and prove myself and earn the respect of the guys on the team. But it didn't take too long for me to get settled in. Galway is not a huge town and after the first month you know all the roads and all the one-way streets. It's like a second home now."

McCartney's second home has yearned to return to the top tier of European rugby and this season their automatic qualification was tangible at times with the play-off route now more likely.

Some poor form in the second-half of the season has seen Connacht slip down the rankings and after losing their coveted sixth-place in Round 20 they are now aiming to better the result of Edinburgh who host Leinster at BT Murrayfield tomorrow.

If Connacht managed to do so it would set up a mouthwatering play-off away to Gloucester with the victors playing the seventh-placed French side for a place in next season's Champions Cup.

McCartney is disappointed his side haven't been able to maintain their good form prior to the win over Treviso last weekend and thinks automatic qualification might be too big of an ask.

"It definitely hasn't been ideal for us here at Connacht recently. We have played some pretty good teams and we've come up just a little bit short in a few of the games. It's been disappointing but we are playing games that mean something at the right end of the season.

"I suppose for Connacht that's probably a position they haven't been in all that often in the past and a lot of the guys I'm sure will learn a lot from playing the big games at the must-win end of the season and hopefully going forward that will help us to a step in the right direction in the following years.

"The whole way through the season our goal has been that sixth spot. It's not in our control any more so when you set yourself a goal and you don't quite get there then that's always disappointing. But the season is not over for us yet and there's still a chance so we have just got to worry about or performance.

"Anything can happen on the last week so it's not all over yet and we just can control what we can control and that is getting a win against Ospreys," added McCartney.

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