The Big Interview: First taste of success has Ballina man hungry for more glory
Powerful hooker determined to edge his way to front of queue and become number one No 2
Last season ended like a dream for hooker Dave Heffernan: a new contract was sown up in March, Connacht went on an unprecedented run towards Pro12 glory, and he got to experience it all from the front seat.
The 25-year-old former back-row came on as a replacement for Tom McCartney in both of the back-to-back games against Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground, and in the Grand Final at Murrayfield.
But his abiding memory of May 28 wasn't when he took the field with eight minutes remaining, and Connacht held a 20-10 lead over Leinster.
Neither was it when the final whistle went, or the celebrations that followed.
The Mayo man was more awe-struck by the build-up and the greeting that awaited the Connacht bus when they reached the Edinburgh venue for their date with destiny.
"It was unbelievable, and the moment that stood out for me was when we got out of the team bus there," he recalls. "It was a really special moment and the whole magnitude of the thing hit us all then. It was something you will never forget.
"I have never experienced anything like it. It was just incredible the feeling getting off the bus and the ridiculous amount of Connacht fans that were there.
"It focused the minds more than anything. We didn't really expect anything like that. It gave us goose-bumps but also a little boost as opposed to in any way distracting us. A lot of the guys spoke about that after the game, how it gave us a little extra."
For a man who hails from Ballina, that feeling was close to winning an All-Ireland with Mayo. And as a supporter he may well get to experience that from the other side of the fence on September 18.
But before Mayo look to end their long wait for glory against Dublin, Connacht will attempt to get their Pro12 title defence back on track against Ospreys tomorrow evening.
It was a desperately disappointing opening to their reign as champions when they fell to a 41-5 defeat at the hands of 2015 winners Glasgow last weekend.
Heffernan, who has played 58 times for Connacht and scored one try, was once again brought on off the bench for McCartney. But he hopes this season will be filled with many more first team appearances, with fellow hooker Jason Harris-Wright gone to London Irish.
"I wish Jason all the best with his move. It was great learning from him over the last few years. He helped me a huge amount in my transition to hooker," he says.
"And I'm also constantly learning a lot from Tom and Shane Delahunt as well. There's a healthy competition there.
"I was involved in a lot of squads last year but I want to be pushing on now for the No 2 jersey. I want to get more game-time, and that's really up to me. I need to keep working on my core skills and keep putting the pressure on.
"I just want to get on the pitch more and take my chances when they come about. Especially with Shane there for competition too.
"But I am delighted to have signed the new contract. It has always been a dream of mine to play for the senior team and it great to get that tied up before the big games against Glasgow and Leinster last season."
After winning the Pro12, Heffernan took some time off; he travelled to Thailand with the recently retired Dave McSharry.
It was a tough pre-season for the Connacht players, who had to bring themselves back down to earth following the glory of 2015-16. And with only one pre-season fixture, against Montpellier, it was always going to be difficult to hit the ground running in the Pro12.
"It takes a few days to get back into the routine of pre-season, but once we did everyone just switched on and it was great. We are going to need to be better than last year if we want to achieve anywhere near that success," says Heffernan.
"It was all about coming down off a bit of a high at the start but everyone got stuck back into it, and with the internationals coming back, they added their experience from South Africa.
"We have put in a lot of hard work in pre-season but so have all the other teams. We need to keep pushing on if we want to compete again and that has been drilled into us."
Despite his on-field exploits and the pressure that comes with trying to force his way into a star-studded Connacht side, Heffernan still has time to complete a Masters and further his education.
The former Blackrock student who did an undergraduate degree in Commerce and Chinese in UCD, and then transferred over to NUIG, has set his sights on finishing his Masters in Leadership Management from Northumbria University next year.
"The online course is aimed at people in work. And the Rugby Players' Union in England have a link with Northumbria University, and with the undergraduate and Masters version of that course in particular," he explains.
"It requires a bit of time management, but the time is there to do it and I am happy to do it. It's easy to get a bit lazy and not do anything outside of rugby.
"But I would like to think if I was working somewhere else that I would be trying to constantly learn new things and better myself.
"There is a lot of stuff in that course that is applicable to my rugby as well. The whole course is based on what you were doing in your organisation.
"It will help in that regard so I don't view it as a distraction, I see it as something that will benefit my rugby and something that I can use in my future profession."