Saturday 21 September 2019

'I've seen the other side of the coin' - Connacht lock relishing his shot at pro game after taste of real world

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Gavin Thornbury has taken a road less travelled to put himself in the frame for international selection
Gavin Thornbury has taken a road less travelled to put himself in the frame for international selection

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When he was playing schools rugby for Blackrock College, Gavin Thornbury always stood out as a player destined for the professional game.

He had the frame, he had the game and it was no surprise when he took the familiar route of joining UCD RFC and the Leinster Academy.

Six years on, he's making his name in the pro ranks but the journey has taken in a few non-traditional turns and by the sounds of things, he's all the better for it.

Injury curtailed his development at his home province where he was frustrated by the lack of consistent games.

So, he went from being part of the Leinster production line to working on an actual production line in a meat factory thousands of miles from home.

Assistant coach Kurt McQuilkin found him a home away from home in New Zealand and the commerce student jumped at the chance of playing part-time club rugby.

On his first Sunday in Waverley, the home of Border RFC, he awoke to hear Connacht had beaten Leinster in the PRO12 final.

Three years later, they are back in the knockout stages and Thornbury is at the vanguard as they head north to take on Ulster this evening (5.35).

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His stint in New Zealand went well; a title with Border earned him provincial action with Wanganui with whom he won the Heartland Championship (the second tier of provincial rugby in New Zealand).

He was enjoying it, but his degree was unfinished and so he headed home.

When he got there, Connacht were waiting. It was, as he saw it, a last shot.

"Having done the whole New Zealand thing, I've seen the other side of the coin," he says.

"Getting the opportunity to come here, when I didn't think there would be anything, was massive to me. It was almost like last chance, then I just said, 'I'm going to enjoy everything I do, give everything 100pc.

"In fairness, they welcomed me with open arms here. I was delighted with the decision. I had to bide my time here last season, but the coaches here . . . Jimmy (Duffy) had great belief in me and in fairness to him he kept at me, telling me, 'You're getting there'

"I was just hoping to repay that confidence and just keep playing well."

The game-time he got when playing in New Zealand helped, but Thornbury embraced life outside his comfort zone off the pitch.

"Growing up, going to New Zealand was something I wanted to do. There's no better place to play rugby," he recalls.

"I was 100pc up for that and from there I played 22 games in 20 weeks or something like that and that game-time just gives you confidence. You remember why you played the game, why you loved it.

"It's tough when you're away with injury, but once you get a run of games it's really good for my confidence. I loved it.

Properly

"Definitely, it made me grow up a massive amount. I suppose I'd never lived out of home properly before that, but I was really well looked after.

"I was set up really well, living with the manager of the team and his family, so I was in a family environment, but I was working Monday-Friday, 7-5.

"I did three-and-a-half months of roofing, then six weeks in a meat works. It was a fairly eye-opening experience, but good.

"I spent the first two months by myself down there, then Steve Crosbie, who I played with at Leinster, joined me and while I embraced it from the start, once he joined the two of us really buzzed off it, enjoyed it.

"We were getting up at 4.30 every morning, going out to the meat works the two of us. It was dark enough. But we said we'd meet everything with a bit of a smile and a joke and tried to make the best of every situation. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"The rugby side was really good, the social side was cracking and we got to see the work side of it. Even that, we enjoyed.

"The first day (in the meat works) was a bit shocking, but after that it was actually all right.

"They kind of kept us to the simpler jobs. I thought about becoming a vegan at one stage, but thankfully they kept us out of the really dark places. Nah, it was really enjoyable. Everyone was really welcoming."

While he was away, his peer group from the Ireland U-20s were starting to make real strides and, while he was delighted to see Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Darren Sweetnam go on to win senior caps, he also felt like he could achieve the same if he got a good run.

"You're happy for them, certainly you know that having played with them you feel like, 'Why I cant I?' Having played a lot of rugby with them, you know how hard they all worked and how much they deserve it.

"When you see boys get provincial and Ireland recognition you're delighted for them. You're just hoping they go well."

Connacht afforded that opportunity and Thornbury is particularly grateful to forwards coach Duffy for his faith.

"I just wanted to enjoy it and that was it," he says of his first season in Galway.

"I had two years to throw everything into it to make the best I possibly could of it. If it worked, I was going to be delighted and I was going to leave no stone unturned.

"Jimmy was massive with me. He'd go through every game and almost every training session with me. I couldn't praise him highly enough.

"Once you have that confidence and you bring that on to the training park and build it into the week, you just try and enjoy every moment."

The process worked and, on the back of five starts and 10 bench appearances he was called up to Ireland's pre-season camp by Joe Schmidt. The way the coach was talking, Thornbury was in the mix for a cap in November until an ill-timed injury took him out of the equation.

The World Cup looks a long shot, but the involvement offered further encouragement that he was heading in the right direction.

"I was surprised to get the call and it was unfortunate I couldn't train (due to a shoulder injury), which was frustrating," he says.

"It was really eye-opening to see the standard up there, what the coaches expect and all the little details. It makes you up your standards here."

This evening, he gets a chance to impress again but the focus is on achieving something special with Connacht.

His new contract means his two-year last chance has developed into at least a four-year stay and a return to the real world is off the agenda.

He wouldn't be where he is without that experience, but for now he is making up for lost time on the rugby pitch.

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