Junior rugby star Heenan quits NZ for Ireland

MARC HINTON
Last updated 12:21 16/05/2013
Jake Heenan
Getty Images
CONNACHT CATCH: Jake Heenan will ply his trade in the European club scene.
Pat Lam
NEW CHALLENGE: Former Blues coach Pat Lam is excited about his new job as coach of Connacht in Ireland.

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It's not just All Blacks who are turning their backs on New Zealand rugby, with ex-Blues coach Pat Lam luring former under-20s flanker Jake Heenan to play in Ireland.

Lam's Connacht have signed Heenan, an openside from Auckland, on a three-year contract.

The 20-year-old helps fill the void in a position previously held by veteran Irish international Johnny O'Connor, who retired at the end of the season.

Heenan was a member of the New Zealand under-20 squad which finished runners-up behind South Africa at the junior world championship last year.

He is currently a member of the Blues development squad but has been snapped up by Lam as a player of immense promise.

"I came across Jake when he was 17 years old," Lam told the BBC website. "He played for the Blues under-18 team when they won the national competition and, even then, I could see what a natural leader and genuine team player he was.

"He brought those leadership skills, as well as his physicality, to the world championship last summer with the Baby Blacks.

"Jake is highly regarded in New Zealand and it is a real coup for Connacht to catch him."

Heenan's signing with the Irish province should provide further angst for the New Zealand Rugby Union as it battles to retain fringe All Blacks in the Kiwi game.

Established players are one thing, but when the cashed-up clubs of the north and Japan start turning their attention to the bright young things in the New Zealand game, then matters are indeed getting serious.

The other aspect involved in northern clubs signing youngsters from these parts is that they can be "re-nationalised", a la Sean Maitland, and become much more valuable commodoties.

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