Thursday 12 December 2019

Kiwi flanker hungry to prove his worth all over again

After three shoulder surgeries, New Zealand native is desperate to put himself back in mix

Connacht’s Jake Heenan is tackled by Scarlets pair Hadleigh Parkes and Steffan Evans. SPORTSFILE
Connacht’s Jake Heenan is tackled by Scarlets pair Hadleigh Parkes and Steffan Evans. SPORTSFILE

Daragh Small

When Jake Heenan signed for Connacht in May 2013, he looked the ideal project player. And the former New Zealand U-20 captain had notched up 18 appearances by mid-February of his first season at the Sportsground.

Connacht coach Pat Lam was previously linked with the young openside at the Auckland Blues, and Heenan starred in the No 7 jersey as Connacht beat Toulouse in France.

At 21, he was a model of consistency in the Pro12 too, and many had earmarked him as a future Irish international.

But in the intervening two years, Heenan has played just seven times for the Connacht first team. And three shoulder surgeries later, in the 2015-'16 season, the 23-year-old needs to prove himself again.

Yet negativity isn't part of his vocabulary, and two games into his latest comeback the Whangarei native has set his sights on many more outings in a Connacht shirt.

First he needs to bag himself a new contract, and only his performances towards the end of this season will give him a chance. It happens to be the most competitive time for the province, and the most talented group of players that have ever called the Galway venue home.

"My personal goals never changed right the way through. I am off contract at the end of this year, and that's something that once I get a few more games under my belt we will be working through.

"I have got a lot of things that I need to tidy up in my game, that I need to be doing better so that I am influencing games. And then I am sure that the rest will take care of itself." His confidence is inspiring yet it will be no easy feat, to establish himself back in the starting 15. James Connolly was playing Ulster Bank League for Corinthians when Heenan took control of the Connacht openside berth.

But 24 months later, Heenan needs to show the coaches that he should be No 1, after the latest home-grown academy prospect took over from Nepia Fox-Matamua.

But for Heenan, having once feared for his rugby career, this competitiveness is likely to bring out the best in him. And he has come a long way since last May, when he found out he needed his third surgery on his right shoulder.

"Going into that last surgery there was a 30 per cent chance I would come out and wouldn't be able to play again. But I looked at it as if it happens it happens, and we deal with it. In the meantime I was not going to stop dreaming.

"If the worst case happens it happens and then we go from there. It's not something that I would regard as being worth thinking about, I would have dealt with it, when and if I had to."


Heenan was focusing on the bigger picture when he decided to go under the knife again at the end of last season.

He had returned from his first surgery in February 2014, when that did not heal correctly he aggravated it in the first game of 2014/'15 against Dragons. It was a cruel blow and after five Pro12 appearances and two tries on his return, he said enough was enough last May.

"That one was more about doing what is best for my shoulder, to allow myself the chance to get a ten- or 15-year career. I wouldn't say there were setbacks after that.

"It was just a bit slower going, and when it came to the date to play, you put it off for a week or two just to be sure. We were a little bit more on the cautious side, but every step was thoroughly taken. But it has been good, and I am happy with the way it came on.

"Even when you are injured rugby is a great day job. You are in the gym with your mates, and you are still working towards a bigger goal and a dream that you love," he said.

"I still made sure that I came in, and I enjoyed lifting with my mates. You do still get the odd day where it gets a bit repetitive. I found the toughest bit was the day that I hurt it in Cardiff.

"That was a pretty tough night, it was just a big setback after working so hard to get back. To play five games, I took that one pretty hard. But even the next day, the sun comes up and you get on with it. Overall, it wasn't too bad."

Heenan, who is now studying an online Sports Management degree from the University of Copenhagen, could not have picked a tougher game to make his return - that finally came in Connacht's 13-0 inter-pro derby defeat away to Leinster on New Year's Day.

He also started against Scarlets, but was not part of the original Challenge Cup squad, and missed the games against Brive and Enisei-STM. However, he's just happy to be back fit, and cannot wait to see what's next.

"It's great to be back knocking around with the boys, and playing a bit of footie again. It's fantastic. I like to think rugby is a pretty simple game. If you do the simple things right it will work out, and that's what I have been focusing on.

"The things I am working on now, are the things I was working on two or three years ago, and are probably no different to what I will be working on in a couple of years. I am just back into work, and back trying to fit into the team.

"I did a bit of visualisation work to make sure I was ticking over. As an openside when you see a picture on the field you need to be able to react quickly.

"That is the key one, the quicker you are at the breakdown, the easier your job is. You want to play as instinctively as possible."

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