Conan ready to fight for his place but tough battle set to continue
Published 15/02/2017 | 02:30
Deep down, some part of Jack Conan must have hoped that Jamie Heaslip followed through with his recent public utterance of being open to the idea of a new challenge away from Leinster.
Conan himself isn't getting any younger and turns 25 this summer, but the heir apparent to Leinster's No 8 throne will likely have to wait until after the 2019 World Cup, by which time last year's hugely exciting U-20 World Player of the Year Max Deegan will also by vying for the jersey.
It's hardly an ideal situation for Conan, who after putting a nightmare injury spell behind him, has taken his performances this season to another level.
Rivalry The former St Gerard's student has spoken about the healthy rivalry between himself and Heaslip but Conan is ambitious enough to not be comfortable with settling for a bit-part role when all of Leinster's international back-rows are fit and firing. And that's before 20-year-old Deegan inevitably enters the conversation.
Ulster have tried and failed to lure him up north but with Conan understood to have already agreed to stay and fight for his place, one wonders if Heaslip's extension or indeed Jono Gibbes' appointment at Ravenhill would have forced a rethink.
Joe Schmidt included him in his original 40-man Six Nations squad but given Heaslip's durability, Conan is almost certainly going to have to wait until the summer tour to America and Japan to add to the one cap that he won against Scotland in a World Cup warm-up game two years ago.
"It just goes to show what the standard is," Conan says reflecting on the Irish back-row's dominant display against Italy.
"It adds fuel to the fire to see those lads playing at a different standard. Jamie got on very well, Seánie (O'Brien) was back from injury and has had two great games and CJ (Stander) was brilliant with his hat-trick, so I think it just makes everyone that bit hungrier and pushes us all to be that bit better."
Conan's luckless run of injuries began when a broken foot ruled him out for 10 weeks in November 2015 before he damaged both ankles and required surgery last year.
He has bounced back well this season however and has scored five tries in his nine starts as he believes he is beginning to hit top form again.
"I just crossed my fingers and said a few prayers and hope I don't break a few ankles," he smiles.
"I suppose it's just a confidence thing really. When you get to play 80 minutes back-to-back and put performances together, confidence grows. I've probably trimmed down a little bit and I'm getting around the pitch a better than I was in years previous. I've felt like that's helped my game.
"Stuart (Lancaster) coming in and the kind of style he's brought in, pushing through the line with those offloads kind of suits me and I feel confident and happy in the style he wants.
"When you get back the first few games, you always struggle with knocks and bumps so in your head, you're thinking, 'Is this something more than it is or is it going to cost me a bit of a time?'
"But once you get through a few matches, you're feeling good and confident and you can put all that behind you and you move on.
"You know, once I'm playing, I'm happy. Even though the lads are away at a different standard and different level playing for Ireland, once I'm here doing my own thing and improving week on week, then I'll be happy.
"Hopefully come the end of this block when everyone's back in together, I've put my hand up throughout these four games and showed that I'm ready to go again for the (Champions Cup) quarter-final."