The Big Interview: Caolan Blade - Scrum-half keen to push on and stake his claim as first choice
Monivea maestro is enjoying his rapid rise to the top after stunning breakthrough season
Kieran Marmion is not the only Connacht scrum-half who has his chance to make a mark during the Six Nations.
With the first-choice No 9 away on international duty, Caolin Blade will be given ample opportunity to stake his claim for a regular spot in the team.
Although he only made his first Pro12 start in the memorable win over Scarlets last month, the 21-year-old has already created a big reputation for himself at the Sportsground.
In just two seasons within the senior ranks, Blade has played ten times in Europe where he has scored three tries, including a double on his first start in Bayonne.
The Monivea native also scored in the eight-try win over Enisei-STM last month, and it seems just a matter of time before he becomes the latest Connacht youngster to challenge for international honours.
But currently the former Monivea RFC starlet is focused on the Connacht No 9 jersey. With his biggest competition out of town, and John Cooney injured, he will fight it out with Ian Porter to take that slot.
Blade signed a development contract with the province last term and he is destined to fight his way up the pecking order now.
"I am delighted for Kieran to get into the Irish squad. We are a tight group of four. We get on very well, push each other hard on the pitch. We are friendly enough off the pitch too. It's really good.
"This year I have pushed on and tried to really challenge them. I have been getting a good bit off the bench, so I try to do my best. I make sure that they know they have to keep doing their best," he said.
"Every day you have to work harder than them. If it was an easy ride all of the time you might step off the pedal. But with me it's a case of working hard every day I'm in here and pushing for it. It drives me more than it affects me.
"It has really brought on my game. We bring on our game together, we work outside of our team training. We work and do our extras together. It's good competition between us which brings us all on."
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt is known for his attention to detail, and that is something that has been incorporated into the Connacht set-up in recent years.
Former Connacht great Conor McPhillips has added his considerable expertise with his new role as assistant attack coach, while the players continue to benefit from the influence of Dave Ellis and Andre Bell.
Skills is the recurring explanation for the ever-improving results this season, and the players have all focused on improving their speed of thought with ball in hand. As a scrum-half it's crucial to have top-notch handling, and this is one of the aspects Galwegians clubman Blade has honed in on this season.
"In pre-season I just worked on my fitness, and the other main things you do in pre-season. That's the best time to get a bit of size or a bit or flair in your game. You work on the basics, so that when you come into the season you are ready. My fitness would have been a big thing.
"But even on our days off, we have maybe one a week. I always come in and work with Dave Ellis. He's a really good skills coach. He looks at you, and can pick up on the little tweaks you need to do. We do a skills plan each week, and target certain things. It's a long process, you don't fix it in a week, but you get better and better every time.
"We have video assessments as a team, but every day after training or when you come in in the morning you look back previously on your team training, but also our individual stuff. With anything like that you take notes on it, you go back to the coaches, you give them feedback, and they give you feedback.
"If something goes wrong you get the next detail right and that's the way Pat has it driven this year and the players are driving it as well."
Of the five Connacht players selected for Ireland's Six Nations squad, four came through the academy, as did Blade. Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion were a couple of years ahead of him, but he did progress through the ranks alongside the likes of Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham.
The conveyor belt keeps churning out the talent under Nigel Carolan and all eyes are on the Sportsground to see who will be next. Blade is a definite candidate but he knows there's a lot of hard work still to do.
"I am delighted for Ultan and Finlay. They have worked really hard. It has really stood to their game. They are performing, working really hard and playing well, and it's well deserved.
"It's inspiring to us. They would have played club rugby fairly recently and now they are playing Six Nations. It just shows when you do get your chance you need to perform and anything can happen then from there.
"It's in everyone's head here now. Playing for Ireland would be a great achievement for anyone, but at the moment my goals are to just work hard and push for a spot on the Connacht team. We can think about that in a few years' time.
"I am really happy with how things stand. Towards the start of the season I was just sitting and waiting for my chance. Once the European games came up I got a few opportunities, and now I am getting a few more chances in the first team."
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