Jake Heenan fast tracks his career with Connacht
Former Baby Blacks captain is excited by huge and exciting challenge against Leinster
Connacht’s Mata Fifita, Jake Heenan and George Naoupu celebrate their recent victory over Zebre.
Jake Heenan is one of the more intriguing arrivals on the Irish provincial scene. It’s not often a 21-year-old, recent captain of the New Zealand Under-20 World Cup team, decamps to Connacht and it is already looking like a shrewd piece of business by both Pat Lam and Heenan himself.
Despite having come through the New Zealand Schools and Auckland Academy to lead the Baby Blacks in last year’s Junior World Championship, Heenan would assuredly have had to bide his time for more exposure at provincial level in his homeland.
Instead, today, he starts his sixth competitive game of the season, having been a replacement in Connacht’s other two, against the three-time Heineken Cup champions in a backrow featuring Jamie Heaslip and with one-time ERC European Player of the Year, one of the 2011 World Cup players of the tournament and the Lions’ openside, Seán O’Brien, as his direct counterpart.
“You get to pit yourself against some of the best players in the world every week, and what more could you ask for?” he reasons, of a move that – unfortunately due in part to Willie Falloon’s long-term injury – is fast-tracking his career quicker than Heenan could even have hoped.
“The nature of New Zealand rugby is that you’ve got to hang around and do your time before you can get to that level and I wasn’t there yet, and this has given me a chance to get a bit of a jump-start to my career.”
A friend had suggested he try England, as his mother Nikki was born there, whereupon Lam – who had first spotted Heenan with the Auckland Blues’ Under-18 team as a 17-year-old – pro-actively contacted him personally. “The more I thought about it, the more I weighed up my options, the more sense it made I guess.”
He’s been taken with Galway’s cosmopolitan nature and its setting on the Atlantic, not dissimilar to his home town Whangerei on the north eastern coastline of New Zealand’s north island. He grew up on his father’s cattle farm, of “a few hundred acres” on which he now breeds and occasionally races thoroughbred horses. “We spent a lot of nice weekends fishing and diving, and that sort of thing, so I was really lucky; I lived a very outdoors’ way of life.” His dad, Hugh, played with the local Marist and Old Boys clubs, mostly as an openside. “He was a good rugby player in his day, I’ve heard, from him probably more than anyone else!”
The age grades
His dad also coached his older brother’s team, which prompted Heenan to begin playing at around five. “I suppose it’s a lot like GAA here, it’s just what you did back home.”
His older brother, who played through the age grades with Northland, was an inspiration, and has been travelling the world and playing rugby in Perth, England and Dallas.
Happy enough to play with Marist, his dad persuaded him to also play with Whangerei Boys High School for the last three years of his schooldays. “My dad had never really been pushed, as he explained it, by his father, so he pushed us into it and helped try to get us fit, and always offered advice. He’s always been very good, and has been very empathetic with my rugby as well, which isn’t overly common I think with older males back home.
“He understands that the game has changed a lot. He’s been very helpful and very honest with me.”
Repeating his final year in 2010, Heenan’s target was to make the Blues Secondary Schools, where he was converted to openside. “The New Zealand Secondary Schools were also a bit short at openside and I got picked by them on the back of two games, so I was a bit lucky really,” he says modestly.
Surprisingly, he was a prop until first switching to lock and then blindside before finally settling at openside. “I was never going to be tall enough for a lock and I suppose the one thing I was quite good at was a read for the game, so seven was quite a natural fit for me. I had to work on a slightly different skills’ set for the position but it was something I saw long-term as a position I could make mine and succeed in.”
Richie McCaw is the player he has most striven to copy, and no less than off the pitch, Heenan plays like a player with an old head on young shoulders. Not especially strong or quick, by his own admission, his strength is in the way he reads the game.
His tackling technique is clean and efficient, whether close-in or sliding out in the wider channels. Heenan put in probably the hit of the match when driving back Mike Van Vuren in the first quarter, and assuredly saved a seven-pointer early in the second half to stymie any home comeback when tackling Zebre loosehead Matias Aguero.
He is also, like any good openside, very quick to the breakdown – making one excellent steal in following a big hit by Michael Swift – as well as being a sharp support player, latching onto Kieran Marmion’s break last week in the build-up to Connacht’s first try.
At Connacht he’s quickly become known for his professionalism, his devotion to analysis and all-round work ethic. “Everything I’ve got I’ve really had to work for and by that theory I obviously want to be one of the greats in the world of rugby, and at the end of the day if I don’t get there it doesn’t worry me as long as I do everything I can.”
He is clearly mature and very driven, and sensibly is not committing himself to anything beyond Connacht’s next game pending his eligibility for Ireland after fulfilling his initial three-year deal with Connacht. “Right now my focus is Leinster and next week it will be Glasgow, and that’s about as far as I’m looking at the moment, and wherever I feel I can best grow and develop my game is probably where I’ll go. I’ve no sworn allegiances at the moment anyway.”
For the next three years at any rate, his allegiance is solely to Connacht, and as with the Ulster derby, this evening’s game will be televised in New Zealand, only an hour so after its completion. “This is huge. Leinster are one of the benchmark teams in Europe, with the benchmark players. This is why you play rugby, to pit yourself against some of the best in the world. A huge challenge, but very exciting.”