These are good days for Dave Heffernan. The late developing 28-year-old is becoming more and more established as Connacht's first-choice hooker, and this week he was one of the province's five players chosen to attend the Ireland squad 24-hour get-together tomorrow.
“It was a big surprise to be honest. I didn’t really see that one coming,” he says with typical modesty. “I only found out when I got a text from one of my mates after training on Monday. It was the first thing I saw when I opened up my phone, so I was a bit surprised.”
“I had to check my emails just to make sure there was something there and they weren’t taking the piss. But yeah, it was a nice surprise.”
Maybe he’s too honest, but he admits that at the very least it was encouraging recognition.
Almost 22 when he was converted from the backrow, establishing himself has been a hard road for Heffernan, not least as Connacht are as well served there as any of the provinces, with Heffernan, Tom McCartney and Shane Delahunt all vying for the number 2 jersey, and Jonny Murphy, the ex-Ulster hooker signed from Rotherham, a recent acquisition.
But Heffernan’s form last season and this has been hard to ignore.
His forwards coach Jimmy Duffy describes Heffernan as “phenomenally dynamic”, adding: “He is extremely explosive. He has played 6, 7 and 8, and he actually has played 7 when we’ve had the odd backrow injury too many. He’s a ball player, having made that move from backrow to hooker.”
It was a very slow transition, quite frustrating at times. It took a lot longer than I would have expected
In one phase of play against Gloucester last Saturday, Heffernan carried twice left, and twice right, all within the space of 90 seconds, and he made ground on each occasion. In all, he made 19 carries for 26 metres in his 70 minutes on the pitch. He also made plenty of clear-outs and 15 tackles, while only missing one.
Like the chief executive Willie Ruane, and another Connacht full-back, Gavin Duffy, Heffernan is from something of a rugby outpost in GAA heartland, ie Ballina RFC. His father Ivan was a goalkeeper with Mayo in the mid-1970s, winning an All-Ireland Under-21 title and two Sigerson Cups, as well as playing in the backrow for Ballina.
Heffernan also played both sports from an early age but freely admits Gaelic football was his “number one sport” growing up, and that only started to change when he began to board at Blackrock aged 15, a decision that had nothing to do with rugby but was a vital staging post in his rugby career.
Making the ‘Rock bench when they beat Terenure in the 2009 Leinster final led to Connacht Under-18 and Under-20 recognition, as well as playing for Lansdowne Under-20s and earning one cap for Ireland Under-20s, in a thrashing by France in the 2011 Six Nations, and in turn being called into the Connacht academy by Nigel Carolan for the 2011-12 season.
A degree in commerce at UCD was suspended if eventually completed, but he freely admits he wouldn’t be where he is now had he not gone to Blackrock.
“I don’t know what I would have been doing. And even in the first two years at Blackrock I was playing for the fifths and sixths.”
Carolan gave him his chance in the Connacht sub-academy and Lansdowne was “massive’ for Heffernan. “Declan Fassbender gave me a shot. I owe a lot to him. He looked out for me.”
Then, in his second season in the academy (2012-2013) before Christmas, Heffernan was astonished when the Connacht backs coach Billy Millard approached him one day and suggested he switch to hooker.
After chatting with Dan McFarland, then the Connacht forwards coach, Heffernan decided to give it a go after that Christmas.
“It was a very slow transition, quite frustrating at times. It took a lot longer than I would have expected.”
His main issue was throwing. “More mental than the technical side of things. It’s kind of similar to goal-kicking, just a different mindset and skill-set, and I’m constantly working on the mental side of that. I’m still not exactly where I want to be but it’s much more enjoyable now.”
There were times he questioned his switch, and was pretty hard on himself for his throwing errors, but has learned from studying McCartney.
“Any time the lineout has gone wrong I’ve never seen him flustered, whether it was his fault or not. He’s immediately able to park things and that’s where I’m trying to get to.”
Last season he felt he threw consistently well for the first time, and he started Connacht’s first five competitive games of the campaign only for an ankle injury to sideline him for two months. Even then he returned to start the most games (13) of Connacht’s stable of hookers and finished the season by starting the quarter-final against Ulster on merit.
Another turning point along the way was the Tbilisi Cup at the end of the 2014-15 season, when Heffernan was included in the Emerging Ireland squad. They beat Emerging Italy, Uruguay and the hosts Georgia, with Heffernan coming on as a replacement in the first and third games while starting the second.
“It came out of the blue and it gave me a massive boost, and confirmation that I’d made the right call. Allen Clarke was the first coach I’d had who was an ex-hooker. Even though I was only over there for two weeks, I found that very beneficial.”
Another important signpost was his Test debut against the USA in June 2017, when coming on for the last half-hour of a 55-19 win. But Heffernan admits he played quite poorly.
“I was very disappointed with how I performed, and didn’t really get a look in after that, which was fair enough.”
“Some stuff went wrong that was completely my fault and a couple of other things I was unlucky with. A combination of the two meant it didn’t go well.”
He describes the season that followed, 2017-2018, as "the most frustrating" he's ever had but it all changed when Andy Friend came in as head coach.
“He gave me a lot of confidence in myself again. It was a big relief when he came in. He picked me as captain as well for the first time,” says Heffernan in reference to him leading the side in the final warm-up game against Bristol.
“I hadn’t seen myself as a typical captain, I’d be a lot quieter than most of the guys, but he put a bit of faith in me at the start of the year when I needed it. He’s been brilliant.”
“It can be frustrating at times, being rotated, but he always has a good reason behind it. The way he delivers his message it’s never overly negative and if there’s any criticism it’s always constructive.”
“Friendy has been massive for me, as have the rest of the coaching staff. When I first switched to hooker Jimmy [Duffy] was one of the academy coaches at the time, and he has brought me aside a few times when I was getting a bit down on myself. He’s ultra professional in the way he does everything and he won’t bulls**t you about anything either, which is what you need.”
Duffy also hails Heffernan’s diligence and work rate and, typically, when we spoke during Wednesday’s down day, Heffernan had just finished optional throwing practice.
Heffernan reckons he gets his work ethic from his father Ivan, and since he was 15 he's regularly done any extra conditioning with both his father and his uncle, Brian Heffernan, who played for Mayo in 1996 and captained Ballina.
“I was never the star player in any team I was a part of and I found I made massive jumps from training with them, overtaking guys who were probably a bit more talented than me.”
As for Heffernan’s future, Duffy says: “The only way is up. As a coach you come across a player he excites you, and I don’t know where this guy’s ceiling is.”
“I’m getting older obviously,” Heffernan admits with a chuckle, “but I do think I’ve a bit of a way to go. There’s a lot more I want to achieve, definitely, and I think we’re heading in a really good direction as a club.”
“To win silverware again with Connacht would be an incredible achievement and to get back into the national team has been something I really want, to redeem myself, because it is something I regret looking back on my career. It’s the only shot I’ve had at it and it would be incredible to get back in there at some stage.”