Sunday 23 April 2017

'I've too much hunger to wait for window of opportunity' - Jack Conan ready to lead Leinster back into big-time

‘I just thought that if I’d left at this stage I’d have had a lot of regrets,’ says Leinster’s Jack Conan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
‘I just thought that if I’d left at this stage I’d have had a lot of regrets,’ says Leinster’s Jack Conan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When he stood on Hill 16 and watched Leinster's coming-of-age win over Munster in the 2009 European semi-final, walking amongst the giants on the pitch was a distant dream for Jack Conan.

At 16, the world of rugby and the possibilities it might afford were only just beginning to reveal themselves to the big St Gerard's student who was still playing underage Gaelic football with Kilmacanogue and Wicklow.

Eight years on, he is preparing to play in his first Champions Cup semi-final, the biggest game of his burgeoning career.

With one Ireland cap to his name, he is determined to secure more and, having finally gotten the opportunity to take over Jamie Heaslip's No 8 jersey after the Ireland and Lions star's back operation, he is determined to make the most of it.

Heaslip's stranglehold on the shirt has been unbreakable for province and country and Conan concedes that the prospect of leaving has piqued his interest from time to time.

Starting and scoring against Wasps in the quarter-final earlier this month vindicated his decision to stay and when we met in a Clonskeagh café on Tuesday, the 24-year-old was counting the hours until kick-off such was his excitement to take the field and take on Clermont Auvergne in front of their own fans.

"I never doubted my want to stay with Leinster… I never wanted to play professional rugby, I just wanted to play for Leinster when I was growing up and that's still true," he says.

"There were times when I saw people getting ahead of me where I was wondering if it was easier - and I when it comes to rugby I wouldn't be one to take the easy option - but I did have to weigh it up.

Jack Conan
Jack Conan

"I did have to think about how well the other lads were doing and as great as it is gaining experience being second fiddle to someone, that's not me.

"I've too much hunger to wait in anyone's shadow.

"So, I had a long, hard thought about it but I just thought that if I'd left at this stage I'd have had a lot of regrets.

"There is a bit of having to bide your time and there's a bit that you need to just go for it. Now I'm going for it, I don't really need to bide my time because I'm in the position I'm in.

"We've got such depth, if you're not up to the task and not performing day in, day out and on the big days then someone else is going to take that jersey and you may never get it back.

"I might not be the most talented out of all of them in any way, shape or form but I would always like to think that I'd want it more than anyone else would. I'm a stubborn old soul, over the years I've had people tell me that I wasn't particularly good at this or that and I'd hold a bit of a grudge against it. I enjoy proving people wrong.

I was devastated for Jamie to take that injury because he's been having a great year. His resilience, ability to repeatedly perform at such a high level is very admirable and any young lad coming up should look at him as someone to kind of be a benchmark.

"It was tough to see him have to go under the knife, it is frustrating for him to be on the sidelines.

Jamie Heaslip of Ireland
Jamie Heaslip of Ireland

"But I've been building towards this for the last few months. Before, I would have been nervous about playing in these big games, about going to Lyon and playing in front of 40,000 screaming French fans but now, even yesterday going through the previews of it, I was sitting there smiling. My excitement for it is uncontrollable.

"I want this week to be shorter, I want the game to be tomorrow; I want to go and play it, I want to soak up that atmosphere because these are the days that don't come around too often."

Part of the reason for that excitement is the way Leinster are approaching this campaign under the stewardship of senior coach Stuart Lancaster. The former England supremo has proved a revelation since being appointed to Leo Cullen's team, taking a hands-on role in developing the game-plan that devastated Wasps earlier this month.

"I love the structures in place," Conan enthuses. "I love the way Stuart, Leo and Girv (Dempsey) want to play the game - it suits me so well; pushing through the line, throwing those off-loads and taking people on, beating defenders...

"Looking at how I've progressed this year compared to the last two years, I've ended up growing massively as a player and that is largely down to the style the lads want me to play. It suits me."

In a recent Newstalk interview, Lancaster revealed that on his first day he treated his new charges to a video nasty from last year's Guinness PRO12 final defeat to Connacht.

Few people in the room knew him other than as the man who had guided England out of their own World Cup at the pool stages, but it didn't take long for him to capture their attention.

"I remember hearing a few rumblings that Stuart Lancaster was coming in and didn't know what to make of it; an ex-England coach, what's that going to be like? It's massively different because you look at our coaching staff at the moment, it's all home-grown talent," Conan says.

"So, before I wouldn't have understood the way he wanted to play, it was all a big shock to me when he came in.

"But what's hit me the most is his level of detail and how hard-working he is, he doesn't miss a beat.

"He sees absolutely everything, you can see his passion for the game.

"It translates into the speeches he gives, the way he talks whether it's in team meetings or on the pitch. He just wants the best, wants us to succeed because he knows we have the talent.

"He's made the world of difference this year compared to last year.

"He cut up (footage of) that Connacht game, we all watched it for 10-15 minutes and then we left the room and we turned around and said: 'That's not us'. We were so shocked at ourselves.

"But it's hugely exciting to see how far we've come in such a small stint, we're a different animal completely."

Conan is hoping his form will gain him further international honours.

The spectre of remaining on the one cap he earned against Scotland in the build-up to the last World Cup "haunts" him, he says, but the summer tour to the United States and Japan should afford him the chance to add to his total.

He was in camp during the Six Nations and learned from the experience, but feels he's ready to give more.

"I received a phone-call from Joe (Schmidt) to tell me I wasn't needed down here (in Carton House)," he recalls. "I just thought, 'OK, grand'. I got up the next day and someone sent me an article saying, 'Jack Conan dropped' or whatever. And it kind of hit me, I actually have been dropped here.

I was a bit miffed at it, I was annoyed because I felt I'd been playing well. Obviously I'm in a tough position because the standard in the Irish back-row is crazy.

"I'd a bit of a point to prove when I went out and played against Dragons (that weekend), had a good performance and I felt I played a bit better because I had that bad news.

"I went back in for a few weeks, it's great to see how it all works, but obviously as someone with a bit of drive, the novelty of being in there for a few days wears off pretty quickly.

"You want to be more than a spectator because that's what I was doing, I took a lot of learnings from it, areas I need to improve on but it's just sort of asked, 'What do I need to do to kick on and get another shot?'

"I only have one cap, it's something that haunts me a little bit. But I know if I keep going the way I'm going I'll put myself in a good position."

That continues in Lyon. His time watching on is over - now Conan takes centre stage.

Irish Independent

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