Tom McCartney enjoying being part of Connacht crusade
Former Auckland hooker was coached by Schmidt, Lam and Nucifora in New Zealand
Connacht’s Tom McCartney. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Rugby is a small world alright, and smaller still in New Zealand. As if to prove the point, when the Connacht hooker Tom McCartney first sampled senior rugby with the Auckland B side, his coach was none other than Joe Schmidt, and his next two coaches were Pat Lam and David Nucifora.
That McCartney first broke into the Auckland under-20s set-up was due to one stand-out performance in a regional under-age trial match in 2004 against the Auckland academy when he was 18.
Schmidt ran the rule over that match alongside Nucifora, who had just taken over as the Auckland Blues’ high performance manager before becoming their head coach for four years.
“I just had a blinder, one of my best games ever,” laughs McCartney, not in a big-headed way, more like what’s-seldom-is-wonderful. “The following Tuesday the coach got a phone call from David Nucifora asking who the little blond hooker was.
“Joe had taken over the Auckland B team because the other coach had pulled out. From there I played really well for that team and got player of the year, and Joe actually promoted me to the Blues wider training group.”
Schmidt, he reckons, has changed since those days. “He was very encouraging and, if anything, was probably a little too nice. Nowadays, from the stories I hear about him, he has a lot more of a harder edge,” says McCartney with a chuckle
“Players don’t get on the wrong side of him now, that’s for sure, although back then he always had a very smart head on him and with an Auckland B team it was about trying to keep things as simple as possible while letting players develop. The detail around the simple things like ball placement was always a very high priority.”
Sense of destiny
Listening to this amiable Kiwi describe his journey from a boardroom in the Sportsground during the week, it’s almost as if there’s a sense of destiny to his story. McCartney was born and reared in east Auckland, and at the encouragement of his father, he took up rugby at the Pakuranga club at around seven years of age.
“It took me about half a season to no longer be too scared of the ball, and then I scored my first try and I was away. Loved it. I played every lunchtime at school and every weekend, pretty much, and then some golf in the summer.”
His father, Greg, came from Manawatu and, also a hooker, sat on the bench a few times for the senior provincial team while playing regularly on their B side. He ran his own landscape company before starting his own catering company where McCartney’s mum, Christine, now also works, having previously been busy raising four kids. McCartney, the oldest of four, is followed by two brothers, Marcus and Brett, and a sister, Alicia.
The family home was “in the country”, about a 10-minute bus ride to school, with a large garden and “a bit of a creek and a bit of a forest out the back; lots of building huts and dams, and playing on the creek and stuff.”
His school, Howick College, was “very mixed race” due to the presence of about 50 per cent Asian migrants, and not especially strong at rugby. He played on a team that were mostly a year older than him, and abandoned Division 1B schools rugby to go back to Pakuranga. It was there that McCartney first earned the nickname ‘Freak’ following a strongman, mini team challenge at the club, and his performances with Pakuranga earned him a place on the Auckland under-20s and the aforementioned Auckland B team coached by Schmidt.
Auckland had an All Blacks hooker, Derren Witcombe, at the time, so McCartney was initially loaned to North Harbour in the 2007 season. The unfortunate Witcombe suffered a career-ending neck injury at the age of 29, so McCartney was recalled to the Auckland provincial side, which was then coached by Lam. Nucifora was McCartney’s coach with the Super Rugby franchise Auckland Blues in 2008, before he was replaced by Lam for the next four years.
In that first 2007 season under Lam, Auckland won all 10 games in the Air New Zealand Cup with a record 48 points, breezing through the knockout stages to beat Wellington in the final, and also winning the Ranfurly Shield.
“That was a pretty special year,” says McCartney, “but after that a lot of players left, like Isa Nacewa. There is only so much money going around in New Zealand and if guys get offered big contracts overseas they have to look after their families. So then there was a rebuilding phase. You don’t replace players like Isa Nacewa overnight.”
Lam has changed less than Schmidt over the years. “Very passionate. You’ve heard him say how he used to hate running straight into people, and back then he was always about moving into the space, do what other teams aren’t doing, and try to run teams off their feet.
“He’s a lot more experienced now as well and has probably learned from a few mistakes along the way, as you do, and that experience has probably made him into a better coach as well.”
Lam took over the Blues in 2009 and in his third year, 2011, they reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual winners the Queensland Reds in the semi-finals. McCartney’s performances drew him to the attention of the All Black selectors, and he was invited to a few squad sessions before and during the World Cup when effectively becoming fourth in the hooking pecking order.
However, Lam departed from the Blues after an injury-ravaged 2012 campaign when McCartney admitted his own form dipped. “I don’t think too many players played well that year,” he admits. “It was one of those seasons you look back on and try to learn from. Then obviously Dane Coles came into the All Blacks squad instead and the rest is history,” he says, laughing.
John Kirwan came in for McCartney’s last two years with the Blues, and with Tony Woodcock departing to the Highlanders, McCartney played most of the season as loosehead. “The way we played, we wanted to run teams off their feet, I got down to about 106kgs – now I’d be 112kg. So I was 6kgs lighter and playing at prop,” he recalls with a slightly bewildered smile.
In all, McCartney played 94 times for Auckland, and 63 times for the Blues, and predominantly at hooker, despite the presence there for all those years of Keven Mealamu, whom he describes as a huge influence along with Witcombe, as well as Lam and Wayne Pivac. “He really helped me grow as a player as well, and as a leader.”
In his late 20s, and after seven seasons with the Blues, McCartney figured if he was to move on, then this was the time.
“If you get the opportunity to see another side of the world and experience a different rugby culture, I always wanted to try it if I could. The time was just right and I was lucky enough to get a phone call from Pat.”
He admits he didn’t really know what to expect from European rugby’s westernmost outpost. “The climate is a little harsher, but coming into the nicer part of the season it’s pretty similar to New Zealand. The people are very similar. I think Pat sent me over the nice sunny pictures from his house and from sunny days at the Galway Races when the town was pumping! ‘Yep, that looks alright. Sign me up.’”
McCartney arrived in November 2014, after completing his obligations with Auckland in the ITM Cup. “I can remember walking down Shop Street in shorts, in November, and people looking at me. But I’ve really enjoyed it.”
His wife, Taryn, carries an Irish passport through her Cork-born grandfather, and further strengthening their ties with Ireland, their first child was born in Galway last year – indeed, baby Marlon will have his first birthday tomorrow.
They live in Taylor’s Hill, amongst a conclave of Connacht’s overseas players, with George Naoupu, Nathan White and Bundee Aki all neighbours. “It’s a good neighbourhood, with a green area for all the kids to play in, and everyone knows each other.”
McCartney has become a key figure for Connacht, utterly reliable at scrum time and also with his darts; he is highly effective around the pitch and is a leadership figure within the squad.
Signed up until the end of next season, if he was still wanted McCartney would be happy to extend his stay here. “It’s an exciting place to be. If Connacht see me as part of their plans, then, yeah, we’d love to stay.”
He also admits that he nurtures hopes of Schmidt one day coaching him again, as he will qualify to play for Ireland in November 2017, when he will have just turned 32.
“I definitely have very high standards for myself, and I can be hard on myself, which I think is how you have to be. I’d love to play international rugby, so I try to keep my standards as if I was playing for Ireland. That’s the level I aim to play at every week.
“I’m still young enough to contribute. I know Joe pretty well and he’d be pretty honest with me in telling me where I’m at. So if I’m still in my position here at Connacht and playing well, I’ll definitely be putting my hand up.”
Indeed, it is by no means inconceivable that he could be Ireland’s starting hooker at the next World Cup.
In the interim though, there’s the small matter of breaking new ground with Connacht. He agrees with Lam and John Muldoon that not reaching at least one semi-final would be anti-climactic now.
“That’s what you play rugby for. At the start of the season, that’s the ultimate goal. For us, our target was top six.
“That was the bare minimum of what we wanted to achieve – play European Champions Cup rugby next season. We’ve got ourselves into a really good position now and if we continue to do our jobs we should be there or thereabouts.
“It makes us proud to think that we’re making so many people here happy, that the supporters are getting that buzz and we’re feeding off that as well. There’s been a lot of hard years here and the supporters have been here in the wind and the rain, and now that we’re having a bit of success they’re loving it. And the team feeds of that as well.”
McCartney picked a good time to be a Connacht man, but his and their journey may only be starting.