Paul Boyle and Dave Heffernan started the cultural shift in Connacht rugby

Paul Boyle is describing what it was like growing up in Gorey with rugby as Dave Heffernan, seated next to him, breaks out a knowing smile.

It wasn’t Blackrock or Michael’s, it was old-school rugby, sort of a step-up job,” says Boyle.

“But it was a great foundation and to be fair I got some really good coaching along the way.”

Having experienced both worlds, Heffernan can understand the sense of pride Boyle feels about forging his own path from rural Ireland to the Connacht setup.

Like Boyle, Heffernan wasn’t born in a rugby stronghold and while his early days at Ballina played a big part in shaping the Irish Hooker, he also spent three years at Blackrock where he won a Senior Cup in 2009.

Despite not attending any of Leinster’s rugby schools, Boyle was voted Outstanding Captain when he reached Ireland Under-20.

Heffernan and Boyle may have made it through the Leinster school and club system, but they ended up in Connacht together.

As a Mayo man, that was always Heffernan’s goal, but when Wexford native Boyle missed out on a place at Leinster Academy and Connacht called, moving west was a no-brainer.

Both players’ trips are typical of Connacht’s diverse squad and the welcoming culture within it.

“The amount of guys who are not just from the other provinces, but from all over the world. They really believe in it and the club’s community is excellent,” says Heffernan.

“I think we’ve always been a team that needs to welcome people because rugby isn’t the biggest sport in Connacht. I mean there’s a lot of competition from other sports.

“Ever since I was in the Academy, there has been a collective buy-in. But we’ve definitely tried to get into the culture a bit more over the past few years. Having the likes of Eric Elwood here, we invited him and Bernard Jackman over for a few chats and that helps too because it gives you a little bit of the history of the club.

“We came from pretty humble beginnings, to be honest. If you talk to some of these guys, you’ll see that it’s been a tremendous development.

“I think people from the west of Ireland are generally quite hospitable and that helps too.”

Boyle, 25, has become a key figure in the squad since joining in 2018 and the fact that the back row was topped by Irish players last year showed just how far he’s come since dealing with the Leinster rejection dealt with.

As much as he feels at home in Galway, representing Gorey will always be important to Boyle.

“I went there when I was seven and loved it from the start,” Boyle recalls. “My dad coached me and there was a good community. When I went in there I loved it. I’ve played all sports but rugby grabbed me early. Gorey is such a good local club.

“I’m very proud of where I’m from because obviously it’s a small club, not many players get through so sometimes I almost feel like I represent the whole club.

“In terms of the platform, I learned a lot there. It may sound silly, but it toughens you up.”

Although Heffernan played on a bigger stage at school, he also came from a rugby outpost in Ballina.

“I loved my time at Blackrock, absolutely loved it,” says the six-time Ireland international.

“Some of my best buddies are still from there, but representing Ballina minors has been huge for me too.

“The club is still absolutely brilliant for me. I am very proud to represent Ballina.

“In the past the perception of Connacht was that it was a bit like a Galway club, but I think over the last six, seven, eight years the whole province has really got behind us.

“I think we got into it as a club. It’s not just a Galway team anymore. We represent everyone throughout the province.

“It’s hugely important and there are a lot more players coming from outside Galway now.”

After Leinster arrived on the pitch for the first leg of their Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 tonight, Heffernan and Boyle could be forgiven for having extra motivation to win one against the Eastern Province. However, this is not the case.

“The only added incentive to play against Leinster is that they are the best team,” adds Boyle.

“There are absolutely no regrets.

“I love Connacht, I love Galway. When I walk around Salthill and around town people are just so friendly – ​​it reminds me of home.”

A home away from home, as Galway is now for many of the Connacht crew. Paul Boyle and Dave Heffernan started the cultural shift in Connacht rugby

Fry Electronics Team

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