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'The squad always gets that bit more competitive for Europe'

The big interview: Conor Carey

Conor Carey aims to nail down the No 3 jersey. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Conor Carey aims to nail down the No 3 jersey. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Conor Carey's PRO14 record for Connacht speaks volumes about the ongoing battle between himself and fellow tighthead prop Finlay Bealham.

The 26-year-old has started ten games and come on as a replacement on another ten occasions in the league since he arrived from Nottingham in summer of 2016 as the duo do battle for supremacy.

A powerful scrummager and a diligent worker around the field, Carey has impressed in recent weeks, but one facet of his game has really stood out this season: his improved return at the breakdown has won him admirers.

"Last year we looked at the breakdown a lot. We do a lot on it with Jimmy Duffy," says Carey.

"There is a weekly prize in the squad for getting jackals. A lot of the lads pride themselves on it. You see how good Denis Buckley is and you want to compete.

"When we defend well it becomes that bit easier. If we are making those hits you get a chance to get in on the jackal and get through for the jackal.

"I have won one or two prizes. But everyone's doing it and we saw how good Caolin Blade's one was last weekend against Munster, when we were on our line he got his head in over the ball.

"Everyone is driving for that, it's a very competitive environment and everyone backs themselves on their ability."

Carey has played 29 times for Connacht since Pat Lam brought him in to replace Rodney Ah You when he departed for Ulster.

With Carl Hayman as his idol, Carey began to get serious about his rugby in Methodist College where he won Ulster Schools Cups in 2008 and '09. He was destined for big things, he featured for Ireland at U-18, U-19 and U-20 level where he played four times in a Junior Rugby World Championships.

After he came through the ranks at his home province, Carey chose to head for the English Championship where he signed with Ealing Trailfinders in 2013.

It was impressive first season with that club and a move to Nottingham followed suit, before Connacht came calling.

Carey had an injury-hit first season at the Sportsground but he worked hard to find his place in the match-day squad and now he battles it out with Bealham and Dominic Robertson-McCoy for the No 3 jersey.

"Finlay has played a bit more than me this year. He is just playing really well. He has got a very good chance of getting into the Six Nations squad," says Carey.

"Dominic Robertson-McCoy was unfortunate to get injured but he's back now. There are three of us that offer different things and we all have a chance of getting that No 3 jersey in the coming weeks."

Cog

Carey has been a vital cog in the Connacht squad this season, and it was a massive boost when it was announced that he had signed a new contract in December to extend his stay in Galway - he was thrilled to get things sorted promptly.

"It was good to get it done early. I am here now and set up for the next while. I am enjoying my time here, the coaching here, the guys that I play with," adds Carey.

"I am enjoying living in Galway apart from the weather. But it's part of living down here, you have to be used to the wind and rain. It was just good to get it done before Christmas and focus on the rugby."

And Carey really did focus on his game - he put in some quality performances during the interprovincial series over the festive season, epitomising the confidence at the Sportsground right now.

"I definitely wanted to beat Ulster because I was there before and that's where I grew up. You always have a chip on your shoulder trying to get one over on the place where you are from," says Carey.

"With Leinster we just ran out of steam in the end but gave them a good run for their money. Against Munster we played well for 60 minutes which is disappointing. That isn't us and we will look to make amends over the next two weeks."

Carey started last weekend's 39-13 hammering at the hands of Munster where, once again, the Connacht pack fronted up.

Although they have struggled in the Guinness PRO14 this season, Kieran Keane's side are in charge of their own destiny in the Challenge Cup. And Carey is determined to help them into a home quarter-final in Europe.

"We have set ourselves up in a really good place over the first four games. We have to go all guns blazing in these two games and a home quarter-final in Galway would be incredible getting the huge crowd.

"The atmosphere for the interpros and the European game last year I can't describe how good it is. I have never experienced a better atmosphere.

"If we had one of those in Galway in March time it would just mean a lot to the players. I am sure it would mean a hell of a lot to the fans too. Once you get to a quarter-final you never know what might happen.

"We want to finish as high in the pool as possible and go hard in these next two games. We have some time off after that and it's just about building over the next two weeks. When it's coming into Europe, the squad always gets that bit more competitive. Everyone wants to play, everyone wants to start the games.

"Even the lads that don't get a chance they might be in the Eagles games and if they impress there they are brought in the next week. There is a bit more bite which helps push up the standards."

Irish Independent

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