Gavin keen to lock down starter's job after big move home
Former U-20 star is ready to fight for his spot after morale-boosting spell in New Zealand
Gavin Thornbury spent his first weekend in New Zealand watching Connacht make history in defeating his former province Leinster in the Pro12 final in May 2016.
Little did he know that 16 months down the line he would back home, lining out in green, and playing at second-row for the western province as he bids to get back in the reckoning on home soil.
The 23-year-old Dubliner is a former Ireland U-20 lock, and after three years in the Leinster academy, and a disappointing first year in the senior ranks thanks some treacherous luck with injury, he headed for pastures new in the southern hemisphere.
It resulted in a successful period with Border before he was called up to Wanganui, and after he helped them to a Meads Cup title, he turned his attention back home.
The UCD clubman returned but this time relocated to Galway - where his father Tony is originally from. The younger Thornbury now lives with fellow new recruit James Mitchell, and wants game-time after a tough pre-season.
"Having a new coach this season and with the new S&C and staff, there is a bit of excitement there. Everyone is just buzzing for the start of the season now," said Thornbury.
"They just want to get going, it's been a really good pre-season. We are looking forward to the first game and taking it from there. It will be week by week after that and everyone just wants to get into it."
Everyone knows what happened to the then reigning Pro12 champions at the start of last season, where they were beaten by Glasgow and Ospreys at the Sportsground in their first two outings.
Connacht never recovered and they will need to hit the ground running against the Scots this time around. But things seem a little more promising heading into this campaign.
By all accounts pre-season has gone well, and this week's announcement that Denis Coulson would be adding his considerable bulk to the front-row ranks has heaped on the excitement levels for the expectant fans.
Thornbury was one of the first signings to be announced - he was a year ahead of Coulson in the Leinster academy - and after his stint in New Zealand, the Deansgrange youngster feels like a much better player.
"It was an unbelievable experience, probably the best decision I made to go down there. Once the opportunity came up I couldn't say no. I always wanted to go down there and play rugby and when the opportunity arose I couldn't say no. I was delighted I did it and everything worked out well," said Thornbury.
"The ball is kept in play a lot more down there. When I first went down I played with a local club. All they wanted to do was play, the ball was thrown around and you had to get involved in that.
"There was a lot of the hard stuff as well, they have hard men down there and at all levels they like to hit each other. Everyone has a skill level and they will play from everywhere.
"You have a mixture of different cultures with the Islanders and they like to throw the ball around. Each player has a different capability. I learned a lot.
"There is a lot of similarities between that and what we have here at Connacht. Nowadays everyone has to be able to throw the ball around and Connacht have been doing that in recent years."
Coming back to Ireland, Connacht seemed like the perfect fit, with their wonderful free-flowing brand of rugby which head coach Keane is likely to implement further.
Up front he is thrilled to be working with forwards coach Jimmy Duffy, who he says is an inspirational figure at the Sportsground.
"Jimmy is a great guy. He is obviously knowledgeable, he has been there for a few years now. He loves the place. You can see that with the way he coaches. He loves coaching and wants everyone to do their best," said Thornbury.
"But he cares about the players and their development too. He is a great guy and wants the best for us and the best for Connacht."
Ultimately Thornbury has come here for one reason, and that is success. He wants to help replicate the heroics from two seasons ago when Connacht upset the odds.
First off he needs to find a place in the team and with two Ireland internationals in his way he won't find it easy to make his mark from the off.
"It's very competitive. We have a good bunch of lads there.
"Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane are probably established internationals. Andrew Browne has been here for a while, and James Cannon came in and did well last year," said Thornbury.
"You have a couple of the younger lads coming up too with Peter Claffey and Cillian Gallagher as well. It's very competitive."
Thornbury wants to follow the likes of Roux and Dillane into the Irish set-up.
He has already worn the Irish jersey six times at U-20 level and he craves involvement at the senior grade.
"It's a dream to play Ireland. You want to play the game to the highest level you can. It has been a dream since I can remember," said Thornbury.
"You have got to take the baby steps, work each day, keep the head down, knock around, hopefully work my way into the starting Connacht side and from there you never know what might happen."