Monday 10 December 2018

Promising lock setting sights on run in the first team

New contract is perfect boost for the latest Portumna man to come through for province

Peter Claffey turns his focus to nailing down a starting position. Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie
Peter Claffey turns his focus to nailing down a starting position. Photo: ©INPHO/James Crombie

Daragh Small

From the hurling stronghold of Portumna, Peter Claffey won't be the first to chance his arm at rugby in the senior ranks with Connacht.

The last man to do so successfully ended up captaining the province to the PRO12 title, their first piece of silverware, in May 2016 - so no pressure then.

And while John Muldoon's career is winding down with Connacht, Claffey hopes his is about to take off.

The 21-year-old has come through the Connacht schools system at Garbally College, club rugby with Ballinasloe and then on to Buccaneers, and now hopefully some appearances at senior level.

"Being from Portumna you were kind of pushed into hurling from a young age," said Claffey.

"I gave it everything I could but I wasn't good at it. I was playing soccer as well, I would have tried everything when I was around 11 or 12 years old.

"I said I would give rugby a shot. I was playing rugby but I didn't get serious until I was in second year. I just started training myself back then but I never thought I would be playing professionally for Connacht and that's fantastic."

He was one of a trio of academy graduates who signed professional deals with the province last month. And now Claffey will look to mirror the impact already made by prop Conan O'Donnell and fellow lock Cillian Gallagher.

The two Sligo youngsters have a combined total of 14 involvements with the senior team already, and Claffey is desperate to follow suit.

He and Gallagher play in the second-row and could be the future pairing for the province if they continue on their current rise and avoid injury.

"We would be in similar enough positions. I know Cillian for a good while now, he is a top man. There is a bit of a competitive edge between us but everyone in the academy helps each other along the way, to push each other to be the best player we possibly can be," said Claffey.

One of Claffey's first memories of Connacht Rugby extends back to the 19 November, 2011, when Top 14 giants Toulouse came to Galway, in the province's second Heineken Cup tie, and their first in the Sportsground.

It finished in a thumping 36-10 defeat to the four-time champions but many seeds were sown that night, and the bandwagon began to pick up pace in the west.

"I always remember going to the Sportsground to watch games. I have always wanted to come here and play for the team," said Claffey.

"It is a bit of a dream to have the contract now, but I just can't get complacent now. I need to keep pushing on and hopefully get into the team when I get the opportunities.

Amazing

"The first time the Heineken Cup was in the Sportsground, I remember that game. The atmosphere was amazing and it did so much for the province.

"I was there with family and friends. I was down on the far right corner with my cousin opposite the College Road end. The game didn't go that well and Connacht lost, but they won a scrum down in my corner and I remember it vividly."

Little did Claffey know that he would be part of the sub-academy less than five years later as he watched Connacht complete a miraculous PRO12 campaign, with a 20-10 final victory over Leinster at Murrayfield.

"I was over there. I went over with my family and watched it in Edinburgh. It was pretty surreal," said Claffey.

"I was in the sub-academy at the time. I wasn't training with the seniors, it was just unreal to watch those guys do that. It was testament to the work that was put in during the year and no matter what they will go down in history.

"Trying to emulate that is the goal of the foreseeable future."

Claffey's father Pat played a number of sports but his grandfather Peadar was dedicated to hurling; he lined out at full-back for Kilchreest at underage level, and then Ardrahan at senior.

But after a failed foray into the GAA side of things Claffey began to focus his mind on what rugby might offer a young man with his considerable frame.

"I never actually played rugby for Portumna. They didn't have an underage system when I was younger," said Claffey.

"I was travelling back and over to Ballinasloe. That's how I got the link with Garbally, because I knew all the lads and I had been playing with Ballinasloe since U-11.

"In Junior Cert I was playing rugby as much as I could and I did a bit of hurling training too. I actually have an U-16B county final hurling medal. I did a bit of hurling and tried soccer but gave up other sports when I was in fifth year, to focus on my rugby.

"I was in a couple of finals against Marist the first year and then when we lost that, there were two finals the next year as we lost a replay to Sligo Grammar.

Claffey's brother John was a try scorer as he captained Garbally College to a narrow 20-17 Connacht Schools Junior Cup final defeat to Marist College at the Sportsground last month.

He has new aims and new ambitions in 2018 once he heads into the Connacht senior ranks next season. And he cannot wait to be given his chance.

"It was unreal to get the contract. I was delighted to get it. I was really relieved because I have had a frustrating year with injuries and stuff like that," said Claffey.

"I wasn't really breaking through but I really appreciate that Connacht are giving me this opportunity. Hopefully I can make a difference in the team into next season."

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