Buckley and improving Connacht braced for defining assignment
Victory over Cardiff Blues would secure a place in next year’s Champions Cup
Denis Buckley: 'These are the games that we want to be playing. We’ve put ourselves in a position where we can reach the play-offs.' Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
There’s no dressing it up any other way.
Come 3pm at a packed Sportsground on Saturday, this will be Connacht’s biggest game of the season. Beat Cardiff and they will secure both a place in the Guinness Pro14 play-offs and next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Lose though, and it will be advantage Cardiff going into next Saturday’s final round, when the Blues meet the Ospreys at the Principality Stadium after which Connacht face Munster in Thomond Park.
“It’s almost a play-off for the play-offs really,” is how Denis Buckley described it.
Cardiff though, are a dangerous, swing-from-the-hip team, as they showed in leading Munster 21-17 after 47 minutes in Cork last weekend before the home side pulled clear.
“They play with a good tempo and they’ve got some really good players, and they’ve got some big players as well,” admitted Buckley. “They find the balance between playing that fast game and then adding the physicality. They’ve had some big victories this season as well.
“We know it’s going to be a very big test but I think we’re ready for it. We’ve had a really big week’s training. The squad is in good shape. We’ve a lot of competition and the training has been competitive, almost to the point of being too competitive,” said Buckley laughing.
The Sportsground is again heading for another sell-out.
“Anyone you meet on the streets, and friends and family, have been speaking up this game,” he says. “Everyone knows how big it is and how important a win it would be for us. It’s going to be noisy.”
Connacht are the Pro14’s most improved team this season, their haul of 56 points already 17 more than last season with two games still remaining. Only Leinster, Glasgow and Munster have accumulated more.
“Yet a few of the lads were chatting about it the other day and we’ve left a few games behind us,” said Buckley, citing Leinster at the RDS (when beaten in the last play after leading 29-12 with 12 minutes remaining) and the Ospreys (when drawing before being beaten in the last play again).
“Andy Friend has made some changes, not only technically, but in driving the culture off the pitch. Some Academy players have really stepped up and some good signings have heightened competition within the squad, which has raised standards. I know it’s a cliché, but for 40 or 45 individuals, we really are a tight-knit group.”
As a home-grown player raised in Roscommon, who began his rugby with Creggs Under-8s, Buckley has witnessed some change in his ten seasons with Connacht. There was no rugby in Buckley’s family tree, but it was “always the plan” to board in Blackrock, as his father Maurice, from Galway, had done. His brother, also Maurice, plays at hooker for Creggs, having previously done so with Trinity.
On a team also featuring Andrew Conway, Jordi Murphy, Dave Heffernan and Brendan Macken, Blackrock sharpened Buckley’s focus on rugby. It also led to playing for the Connacht, Leinster and Irish schools, and being brought into the Connacht Development squad by Nigel Carolan and then their academy while studying Commerce in NUI Galway.
A keen hurler, Gaelic footballer and soccer player in his early days, Buckley was also proficient at handball, which must have contributed to his hand-eye co-ordination. He’s also become a strong scrummager in recent seasons, augmenting his mobility and turnover skills at the breakdown.
Hence he has become a fulcrum of the Connacht pack. In the last five seasons, all but three of his 85 league games have been starts.
Cruelly, a broken ankle in training ruled him out of the knock-out stages in Connacht’s 2016 title success after starting 16 of their first 20 games.
“That was a tough one to take,” he admits.
Along the way, he has played for Emerging Ireland and at the end of last season Pat Lam brought Buckley, Ultan Dillane and Niyi Adeolokun into the Barbarians squad.
“You’d think some of the stories about the Barbarians and what they get up to during the week must be an exaggeration, but they really aren’t. I got to meet some real legends of the game, like Juan Fernandez-Lobbe. The week was really something special.”
Buckley reckons he was the only uncapped player in the Baa-baas’ squad. Still only 28, and having recently signed another two-year deal to take him through to 2021, he retains a burning ambition to play for Ireland.
“It’s still a massive goal of mine. I’m 28 so I know I’m not a young lad coming through anymore, but it’s not something I’m giving up on.”
Having been involved in expanded Irish camps, Buckley knows the improvements he needs to make.
“The big thing would be consistency. I’ve had some good games but at the same time I’ve definitely had one or two games that I was really unhappy with. I need to be a little more dominant in my carrying, and carry a little bit smarter,” admitted Buckley, citing the strengths of Cian Healy, Jack McGrath and Dave Kilcoyne.
Doing it in games like this one, and ideally in play-off matches and in next season’s Champions Cup, would be even more significant.
“These are the games that we want to be playing. We’ve put ourselves in a position where we can reach the play-offs, but it doesn’t really count for anything unless we win. Then, anything can happen. All our focus is on this game, but it could be a special few weeks for us if we get our stuff right.”