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.