'We fully expect to go and win, it's a massive opportunity' - Tiernan O'Halloran
BEFORE Robbie Henshaw, there was Tiernan O'Halloran - a fresh-faced local boy who scorched his way to 50 Connacht caps by the age of 21 and earned a call-up to Declan Kidney's Ireland squad.
Three years later, the Connemara native arrives in Kingsholm for tonight's Challenge Cup quarter-final older, wiser and making up for lost time after an two injury-plagued seasons. As first a fan and then a player, he has experienced his home province go through some hard times, so watching from the sidelines for much of this season's progress has been hard.
Under Pat Lam, the western province are fighting on two fronts at the business end of the campaign for the first time. On one hand, European silverware is on offer, while qualification for next year's Champions Cup remains their primary goal.
Tonight, they take on a Gloucester side who are heavy favourites in the eyes of the bookies, but with a home semi-final at stake, the Irish side are determined not to let their chance slip.
And, after the frustration of missing out on so much, O'Halloran wants to deliver.
"It's a massive opportunity, to get a home semi-final in Galway - you saw a couple of years ago when we played Toulon here, the buzz around the city was massive," he says.
"We've had a lot of big wins in Europe, it just seems that whenever there's a big game and people don't have as high expectations of us, we'll always look to stick together and fight for everything. We cherish those moments.
"There's another one this weekend: Gloucester away from home, Sky Sports, it's a massive opportunity for a lot of lads. We're going over with the massive expectation of winning. It's knock-out rugby."
An underage star who also played minor football for Galway, O'Halloran skipped the Academy when he was handed a development contract by Connacht straight out of school.
He wonders now if it cost him in terms of physical development and ultimately could have contributed to the knee problems that have plagued the last two years.
"At the time I was able to go with it and keep playing, but maybe that caught up on me two or three years later - I hadn't got that physical work in," he says.
"It's hard to know the balance, but I'm finding now I'm up at the pace, but maybe it was a lack of all of that gym work that caught up on me. When you're young, coming out of school and wanting to do well, you don't really think about those things. You just give it everything out on the pitch, hitting everyone like a madman, have good carries, it might have been a small factor.
"At the same time, I was delighted at the time. It wasn't the wrong decision to go into the senior squad, it gave me the experience now. I'm just turned 24 and I'm one of the more experienced members of the squad. That's stood to me now, I wouldn't look on that as a bad decision, not staying in the gym for a year and getting bigger, I just relished it."
When faced with the choice between senior game-time and working in the gym, no player is going to turn down the minutes, and O'Halloran made quite an impact in those early years, resulting in a call-up to train with the Ireland squad a year after representing his country at U-20 level.
He enjoyed the experience and left wondering if the call might come again, but despite an Emerging Ireland tour he knows that he needs a consistent run of games with Connacht before the thought can enter his head.
"I was scoring lots of tries and when I got called up to the Ireland squad it was great recognition and a massive experience," he recalls.
"I really enjoyed being up there, training with the likes of Johnny Sexton and seeing how they approach these things, it opened up my eyes.
"Coming back down from that, there was frustration for myself; just being injured and things like that. But, the way it is now, I've experienced it but I'm not looking to jump straight back into anything.
"At the moment, I have to take it very short-term focused. It was a great experience, to see what the atmosphere's like in an Irish squad and it was enjoyable, but I'm focused on my performances for Connacht and staying injury-free for the rest of the season."
O'Halloran's rise was marked out well in advance and it could be argued that sporting excellence is in his genes.
His father Aidan won an All-Ireland with Offaly in 1982, even if he wasn't on the field when Seamus Darby scored a goal that still haunts Kerry, due to a bizarre twist of fate.
Unsurprisingly, the youngster has leaned heavily on his dad's sporting experience.
"In 1981 Offaly lost the All Ireland final to Kerry and the following year they were going for five-in-a-row when Darby got the goal," he says of his father's glory days.
"My dad actually broke his nose the week before the All-Ireland final playing a soccer match. . . why you play a soccer match the week before, I don't know! He regrets it to this day, even though he got the medal.
"He'd be the person I listen to most, though, the biggest role model in my career because he played at such a high level as well, with the Gaelic football. He's always someone I'd talk to after a game, he knows his rugby.
"He never forced anything on me, but he always had high expectations.
"But he never would have said play one or the other, he encouraged me whatever sport I'd played. He was always someone to lean on whenever something didn't go right, always supportive and never forced anything on me.
"It's the same today, I'm older now but after every game we chat about how it went.
"He'd tell you how it is, he wouldn't tell you 'you're great' if you weren't. He'd be honest with you, he's my biggest critic but also a big supporter."
Over his six years as a professional, O'Halloran has been part of Connacht's evolution, even if the last 18 months have been a frustration. A win tonight would breathe new life into their season, and he reckons they are capable of delivering.
"The last couple of years it has stepped up a notch, expectations are higher as well. Every game we go into, we fully believe we're going to win the game - whether we have injuries or not," he says.
"It's the same this weekend, we fully expect to go over there and win, that's how it's been the last couple of years."
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