'I would love to get back in the Ireland camp, it was great'
Castlegar flyer is enjoying a new lease of life under Kieran Keane after his injury nightmare
Despite his relative youth, you would have expected Darragh Leader to have amassed more than 57 caps in a Connacht jersey, five seasons on from his professional debut.
The 24-year-old thought it was a prank call when Joe Schmidt rang him back in October 2014, offering him a place in Ireland camp ahead of the autumn internationals and it was assumed he would push on from there.
But an innocuous arm injury turned into an unforeseen lengthy spell on the sidelines. And now the Castlegar native must rebuild his career under the tutelage of a new coach and backroom team in the Sportsground.
"Kieran Keane has been really good to me. I have had a few meetings. He talked me through my injury. He is a big fan of my kicking and he wants me to push on and start taking on more duties there," says Leader.
"He has been great for me. He is a really nice guy. He knows his rugby and has a track record of players like me who fell off the scene, and getting them back going towards their full potential.
"He told me he would help me every way he can to get to where I was before my injuries hit.
"He was here a week before I got a cast sorted for my hand, and he noticed that I wasn't using my hand a lot in my tackles.
"I was telling him it was difficult but when I had the cast on I got more comfortable there and he was happy with that.
"It's a lot different having Nigel Carolan at senior level too. When I was injured he was always having chats with me. He was a good friend to me before he was senior backs coach.
"He loves playing open and expansive rugby and from the academy I knew that. He wants us to throw the ball around and play heads-up rugby as opposed to being stuck in a rigid system."
The injury nightmare began in 2015 and despite a number of appearances in between, constant setbacks kept arising to halt his progress on the field.
"I injured a scapho-lunate ligament in my wrist. It happened in pre-season against Castres in August that year," says Leader.
Leader only played seven times as Connacht made history to claim the Guinness PRO12 league title for their first ever piece of silverware two seasons ago.
He made all of his appearances before Christmas, and the try he scored at Enisei-STM was his last cap in Europe. That came way back in November 2015.
The comeback was long and arduous but he eventually made his reappearance against Scarlets in April of this year.
Leader also featured in the defeat to Munster after that but he was just delighted to be back out on the field and fighting for his place in the Connacht squad again.
"I played two games in May and had five or six weeks off and went away and travelled around the place," adds Leader.
"But I remember playing more games in four days there at one stage than I did in the last two seasons.
"It was great to be getting game-time and playing rugby whether that be at wing or full-back. I was on the sidelines for long enough. It's fantastic as opposed to just watching on.
"I got this cast made six or seven weeks ago, it's called a Tiger Paw, and when I wear that I can hand-off like I could before and that's another big step in the right direction.
"When I was coming back during the summer, before I got the cast, I wasn't handing-off as much. Then I got the cast made so it saved me having to test the ligaments too much."
Leader graduated from NUI Galway with a Commerce degree in the same week that he was called up to the Ireland squad in 2014.
Since then he has gone on to study for his qualified financial advisor exams through UCD, where he ended up completing one assessment in the Munster Rugby S&C Office at UL, after being unable to attend the Galway sitting.
But it's all Connacht Rugby for the Galwegian, and he is determined to fight off the competition for his jersey and make an impression along with the fresh-looking Connacht squad under new management this season.
Connacht started off slowly in the PRO14 this season, but things looked to be turning around for the better at Scarlets last weekend and interprovincial derbies are the next step up.
"For the moment it's just about focusing on Connacht. I would love to get back up in Ireland camp. It was a great experience but I will have to play for a while before I can get back into consideration," says Leader.
"But now it's all about Connacht and trying to get as many games as I can for my province. I am not really worried about anything else."