Ever-present Denis Buckley leading the charge for Connacht

Pat Lam’s improving young side are ready for Bayonne test in European Challenge Cup

Connacht’s Denis Buckley is tackled by Steven Shingler and Johan Snyman of Scarlets at the Sportsground. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Denis Buckley is tackled by Steven Shingler and Johan Snyman of Scarlets at the Sportsground. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

In the Sportsground last Saturday night, Denis Buckley hadn’t even broken sweat by the time he found himself standing with the other Connacht players under the posts and waiting for Scarlets’ Steve Shingler to go through his conversion routine to add to the penalty and opportunist try he had already manufactured. 8-0 down. Barely three minutes played and the place graveyard-silent: this was an unsettlingly swift return to the bad old days.

“We actually spoke about that moment afterwards,” Buckley recalled on Tuesday, wearing his training gear and showing a polished shiner underneath his left eye.

“There were no negative comments or people giving out . . . it was all about concentrating on the next job and getting some phases together. I think we did that and it was good to see. It wasn’t the start we were looking for.

“We had spoken a lot about how we approached that game tactically and how the first 20 minutes were crucial to us. Then we were 8-0 down. We didn’t sort out the kick out . . . I don’t know what happened because we had a sharp warm up.

“Sometimes in the warm up you feel that everyone is not quite there yet. But there was a good buzz about the place and it didn’t feel flat at all. These things happen. In the past we might not have come back from a start like that but we went through the motions and the systems that we have in place and got a few scores and built of that and, thankfully, came out with a victory.”

Every match

The Roscommon prop has personified the hugely impressive opening chapter to Connacht’s season. He has started every match for the club this year, a statistic formed by both his sparkling form and by the fact that Pat Lam is working with limited personnel up front due to injuries.

 

Buckley is only 24 but has already picked up 59 caps for Connacht. Saturday’s match against Bayonne, in the European Challenge Cup, will be his first non-Heineken Cup continental match. He knows he emerged from the academy at the perfect time, gaining invaluable minutes against the elite forwards in world rugby.

Like most west of Ireland kids who make it in rugby, Buckley is a product of both a solid local club – Creggs – and the boarding school system. He played on a superb Blackrock team that won the Leinster Senior Cup in 2009.

“That is almost six years ago now,” muses his former Blackrock coach Peter Smyth.

“My biggest memory is that I don’t think I have ever come across a stronger set scrummager. The thing about Denis was, and you would be saying it to him the whole time, that at school’s you can only push 1.5 metres. I don’t think he ever met a guy who he couldn’t push further so were always saying: just push to there and stop...he used to drive them all the way back. We used to just reset every scrum.”

Buckley was one of five Blackrock players from the 2009 vintage who went on to sign professional contracts. Dave Heffernan, who played lock at school, is now a hooker with Connacht.

When Buckley started secondary school, playing rugby daily was a big attraction for him but he was nonetheless surprised by how quickly he became absorbed by the game.

“Like, I remember in boarding, after training and before night study, lads went out to play tip and you constantly had a ball in your hand so I do think boarding helped my game a lot . . . we spent a lot of time just outside playing touch.”

In addition to his power, Buckley’s other chief attribute lay in his talent for carrying the ball in the loose. In physique, he belongs to the new breed of loosehead props, compact and strong and athletic. But he is not the biggest or the heaviest in a rugby era defined by body mass and torque.

Last season, he was playing as light as 98 kilograms, trying to scrummage against behemoths who could clock up 130kg before breakfast.

During the off-season, the Connacht coaching staff asked him to go on a strength -and-eating programme so that he could gain ten kilograms.

“I was a bit worried about it,” he says now. “One of my strengths was just mobility around the field and being 98 kg was ideal for that. So I worried that extra ten kg would take away the best part of my game. But it hasn’t ...I worked with the coaches about putting it on the right way and it is working out well. My weight had been a hindrance in the physical confrontations so that extra ten kilos has improved my scrimmaging and tackling without affecting my overall fitness.”

Happy coincidence

The introduction of the new scrummaging laws have been a happy coincidence for Buckley as he emerged as a first-choice front row option for Connacht. He winces at the idea he is an expert practitioner at scrummaging, saying he learns every day he goes out there. He misses the presence of Brett Wilkinson, who was forced to retire last year after a neck injury.

 

“Brett’s a friend and he would give me a lot of tips. He is a fantastic loosehead and a great scrummager. So it is strange not having him here and hearing his voice. And it was awful that he had to retire. You do need to be careful. You learn by mistakes. But the main thing is just doing as many reps as I can.

“Coming through, that can be hard because obviously if you are not first choice, you are not going to get as many reps. So you do need to be clued in and to do video analysis.

“You need to make sure that you are rock solid in that rep and that you are able to execute it. Because if you are on the outside of the squad and you mess up, it will take a while to get another chance.

“ Video work and one on one work helps but yeah, the reps are crucial. And Dan McFarland is a great forwards coach, technically excellent. And then obviously getting game time and experience is the key.”

He has been getting that in spades. When Buckley was a kid, his parents took him to Connacht games occasionally and there is a vicious rumour circulating that he acted as mascot before a Challenge Cup game against Bristol. But in Roscommon, the Connacht team was a vague entity: a big rugby team operating in Galway city.

Buckley was signed with the Connacht academy by the time he was 14 and in the ten years since, he has seen first-hand just how far the club now reaches in terms of appeal and general awareness. Just last year, the senior squad held a training session in Creggs.

It was packed with youngsters who seemed to know who was who. Connacht have enjoyed more television exposure this year and their run of form has added to the overall current feel-good energy within Irish rugby. The acquisition of Mils Muliaina added a dash of glamour and has helped the gate receipts while adding a new dimension to the team’s back play. But Buckley believes the squad is doing much the same this year as it did last year and that the influences of the patterns and mentality introduced by Pat Lam have begun to show up in results.

Constant contact

He is simply enjoying the season and doesn’t feel as if the minutes have taken their toll. He knows, of course, that he is playing in the most physically demanding position in the sport. Wilkinson’s injury was a vivid demonstration of how quickly things can change, even for a seasoned front row man.

 

“The coaches manage us and are in constant contact with the physios. But it is season on season: you plan in terms of weeks rather than years. This season is the priority now. To keep a team like Scarlets scoreless for 76 minutes says a lot about where we are. The Sportsground has improved, the supporters are fantastic. We are undefeated here and we want to keep that for the season.”

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