Conan back in Blue and doing what he does best
Published 26/02/2016 | 02:30
It was hard to tell which Leinster forward wore the bigger smile after the win against Cardiff last time out. For Mick Kearney, a Leinster debut, a Leinster win and a return from nearly ten months of injury hell. For Jack Conan, it was a Leinster win, a Man of the Match award and a first game in nearly three months after his own injury and spell on the sidelines.
For both it was good to be back and for Conan he was nearly as happy for Kearney as he was for himself.
"Mick and I - and Ed Byrne as well - have I suppose seen a lot of each other in the gym this season and we've seen the highs and lows for each other. It can be tough when you get bad news or setbacks and you are a little removed from the rest of the squad.
"We have pushed each other as hard as possible and have tried to make our own rehab and gym environment as competitive as possible but ultimately all you want is to take those first steps onto the pitch. So it was great to see Mick get his first cap after all that he has been through. We just need Ed to clear his last few hurdles and we'll all be back."
In three appearances at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, Conan has yet to taste defeat and has two Man of the Match awards to his name.
It's a happy hunting ground for the Old Belvedere club man.
"I definitely have good memories of playing here. I made my debut here two seasons ago and popped up with a try that night. I enjoy it as a surface to play on even though the joints are a little bit sorer afterwards with it being artificial turf.
"But, most importantly, it was great to get a win and keep our position in that top four of the Guinness Pro12 going. You can see how tight it is up there so we knew that we couldn't afford to slip up."
He may not have been on the score sheet last Saturday but he was on hand to put captain Isa Nacewa away.
If the game had been played in a sodden, rain-soaked pitch anywhere else, it may not have happened.
"It's the one huge plus to those surfaces and it's great that we were able to train on one in Donnybrook too so it's not that alien to us when we play in Cardiff.
"The track is always consistent and you can make ground regardless of the weather or the conditions.
"When I looked up I just saw there was nobody there so I suppose it was a little bit opportunistic. I was panicking a bit to see all that space after three months out so I was just glad it was Isa on my shoulder because I'm not sure I had the additional 40 yards in me!
"Finishing those opportunities though is what he does best. I think that's seven tries now for him since he came back to Leinster. That's just incredible when you think that that's a player who took two years out of the game. To come back as good as he has done is a credit to him."
The win and the importance of the win is not lost on the Leinster No 8.
"I think backing up the Zebre win last time out was important. Two wins on the bounce and in those conditions too. We had to dig really deep at times and I think our defence and our discipline was really good because they came at us hugely in that second half.
"A win like that, withstanding that sort of pressure, lads putting their bodies on the line like Redser did for that block at the end, that does huge things for the confidence of this group."
For anyone not familiar with the game. Leinster played with a gale in the first half and into a gale in the second with only a three-point buffer at half-time.
Time to be nervous? Or time to back the process?
"We had a good chat at half-time. Of course we would have liked a few more on the scoreboard but it wasn't to be so we just addressed a few things for the second half, knowing that they would see plenty of ball and would come at us.
"Knowing the conditions were going to worsen as the game went on we knew our defence and our discipline had to be better. We could give them no easy outs or access into the game and we also felt that we were maybe a little soft at ruck time so we were able to identify a few key things that would give us focus for the second half.
"It was really about simplifying it I suppose. Into that breeze, it was always about controlling the ball and ensuring that you made them work for everything they got."
One element that helped them control the ball was a solid scrum platform. Cian Healy and Mike Ross are at the beck and call of the Irish team this week after excellent performances from both last time out.
"I think we performed really well as a pack but you look up and you see two international quality front-rows ahead of you and doing their job really well it makes everyone's job that little bit easier.
"Cian and Mike went really well but I think as a unit we went particularly well but it's the lift a player like Mike gives you. First scrum off the bench he won a penalty for the team so it was brilliant for them to add their expertise and to keep the pressure on. You'd wish them well for the week and hopefully they'll get a look in against England."
This weekend it's a trip to Italy and to Parma to take on Zebre for the second time in three weekends. With his ankle fully healed and a first 80 minutes in three months under his belt he's looking forward to it but after an eight-try demolition last time out, you venture that complacency might be the biggest factor.
"Possibly but to be fair to our coaches every game is approached with the same intensity and the same drive. So we will prepare for Zebre as best we can. Munster nearly came undone there a few weeks ago, Connacht shipped four tries against them last weekend.
"They are definitely a tougher team to play against over there. I remember last year we were level three-all at half-time before we pulled away somewhat in the second half and we will need the same patience this week.
"They have backs like Luke Burgess, Kayle van Zyle, Mils Muliaina and Dion Berryman who can punish you and a very experienced pack led by Marco Bortolami but we have every confidence in ourselves as well and if we do our bit right the performance looks after itself."