Denis Buckley joins elite 200-club in Connacht

Connacht is 'very grateful' to have Buckley in its team

As a national school youngster in Roscommon, prop Denis Buckley was such a big Connacht Rugby fan, he wrote to the club asking to be a game day mascot.

His wish game true. He accompanied then captain Eric Elwood onto the pitch, and became an even bigger fan. Some 20 years later, not only is he still a fervent supporter, but a player of huge standing among his peers. Now the former Creggs RFC youngster is set to amass 200 caps for Connacht, joining the elite 200-club of John Muldoon (327 ) and Michael Swift (269 ) when he lines out for Connacht against Benetton in Italy on Saturday.

It has all the makings of a fairytale, but there was no magic wand. Yes, a deep love of the game and Connacht has been a huge plus, but surviving the physicality of front row rugby at the top level has required a whole army of attributes, not least mental strength, dedication, and resilience to deliver week on week, season on season for a decade.

This week when Buckley heads to Treviso, it will be with fond memories. His first competitive fixture for Connacht was against the same opposition, and he remembers it well, particularly for the weather being very hot. It was September 3, 2011, when as a third-year Connacht Academy player, he replaced Ronan Loughney after 60 minutes.

"It was so hot they broke the game into four quarters with a water break at 60 minutes which is when I came on. I don't know at that stage what my goals were. Up until then it was to get my first cap, then the next, and a first start, which I did later in the season against Edinburgh at home."

Buckley says he has continued to develop under different coaches, which have included the duo of Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland, Pat Lam, who developed work at the breakdown which has became a signature of his game, and now under Andy Friend and forwards coach Pete Wilkins, there has been a greater emphasis on physicality and collision winning.

"When I was coming through the academy I was lucky enough that Dan McFarland was the forwards coach. He was a loosehead and he understood the position. I had a strong relationship with him, particularly in the academy. His guidance was immense in that first and second year because it's very different from playing All Ireland League rugby or underage."

Pat Lam and Jimmy Duffy have added to his development, while former captain John Muldoon became a close friend and mentor.

"John helped me out with a lot of things during my career as I became more integrated into the team and became a regular. We formed a close friendship, and also Tom McCartney when he came in. He helped improve my game a lot."

Barbarians selection

Now one of the leaders in the squad, Buckley still prefers to let his walking do the talking.

"The way I look at it, is to lead by example. I wouldn't be the biggest talker, but you can lead by nailing your role, by setting an example on the pitch and in training - that is what I try to focus on."

And a long-lasting love for his province that ensured he has remained at the Sportsground, despite opportunities elsewhere.

"Over the years I have had one or two opportunities that I seriously considered, but this is where I am from. Connacht has shown a lot of loyalty to me and I have been loyal. I really like playing for this team and I'm pretty happy with how things have worked out and the decisions I made in the past."

Highlights naturally include the PRO12 winning title under Pat Lam - Buckley missing the final with a broken ankle. But there are hard-fought matches which are just as meaningful. The now famous win over Harlequins during Elwood's stewardship stands out, coming after a 14 game losing run, and this season's first against Leinster since 2002. There is also his selection on the Barbarians in 2018, which he doesn't mention, but his club Creggs are proud to display that jersey in the clubhouse.

"When I finish my career, I will look back and remember that Leinster game well. It wasn't known outside the group that the team changed three or four times. Originally I was not meant to be playing, but different lads got injured, and the team didn't really train together. We went up there with not much to lose and everyone went all out. To get a win, that was a performance I was really proud of."

As a prop forward, scoring tries is not his top priority, but he has scored seven, and the last one was against Saturday's opponents Benetton. It would be the perfect celebration for a player who forwards coach Pete Wilkins says continues to be the number one choice in the number one jersey.

"His ability to front up for us, and for us to know exactly what we are going to get, in terms of the quality he brings, the dynamism he brings, the work rate he brings, his threat over the ball in terms of his jackal strength, his diligence in his detail around the set piece - you are very grateful to have him in your team. To have 200 caps, it's terrific for him, great for us as a club, and we are pleased to still have him with us."


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