It has been a month of personal rewards for Connacht prop Denis Buckley, but none will come bigger than a Connacht victory over Gloucester in the vital first-leg Champions Cup play-off on Sunday.
The 24-years-old, who was this week one of of eight Connacht players named on the Emerging Ireland squad, says that while delighted with his recent recognition, the imminent clash with the Challenge Cup champions has been his only focus.
“It’s my first time ever with any national team involvement that doesn’t include underage, so I am delighted. But while it’s great to get a bit of recognition, the main issue this week has been focusing on Gloucester, and I am just concentrating on getting a big win,” he says.
“I think most of the lads who are Irish qualified have Irish ambitions and it’s no different for me, but the best thing you can do is get picked for Connacht, and the better Connacht do, the better it’s going to reflect on yourself. That’s when the national coaches start noticing you.
“So if we can beat Gloucester on Sunday and Racing Metro, or whichever French team at home, it will reflect on us. Doing well with Connacht is key.”
Buckley has earned his stripes with the province over the last six years, after playing with Blackrock College school teams and his home club Creggs in County Roscommon.
After two years as an academy player and a one-year development contract with Connacht, he earned a senior contract three seasons ago. However, he readily admits benefitting from injuries to other props - not least last year by the neck injury to Brett Wilkinson which forced his retirement.
“I have had a good year. The key has been staying injury-free and I have had a good crack at the No 1 jersey because some of the other lads have been injured and it’s given me a good run at it. More game-time has allowed me to perform better, but I want to keep improving.”
Buckley has forged a reputation this season as a solid scrummager and as a prince of thieves at the breakdown, which has been recognised with his selection on the Pro 12 Team of the Year and as the Connacht Forward of the Year.
“My biggest problem was consistency. I might have played well one week, but not produced it the following week,” he says, an improvement which coach Pat Lam attributes to his change in preparation, becoming more vigilant in all areas including nutrition, strength and conditioning, and training.
“We have a nutritionist Marcus who has helped me out with food diaries. He has empowered me to have a real understanding of what I need and when I need it. I put on weight last summer and that has helped me this season as well, so I am trying to raise the standard in everything I do. “
Gloucester are favourites, having already beaten Connacht at the quarter-final stage of their cup run, but Buckley treats that defeat as good preparation for Sunday’s contest, whether he is playing against experienced former All Black John Afoa or Tongan Sila Puafisi
“Afoa is a really good player — one of the best — but I have come against similar calibre props so I certainly am not fearful.
“We have a lot of confidence going over there. We know what it’s going to be like and what to expect.
“This is a great opportunity to right the wrongs from the last time we went there.”
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