Conan ready to carve out opening after year of frustration
Published 01/11/2016 | 02:30
In the final minutes before Leinster's Pro12 derby with Connacht last Saturday, Jack Conan was momentarily hit by pangs of anxiety.
It wasn't the size of the RDS crowd or the prowess of the opponents that unnerved the No 8, but the realisation he had not started a home game for over a year.
His 2015-16 season was hampered by injury, having twice broken bones in his foot, first in November and then in March.
He managed to make cameo appearances in the Pro12 semi-final and final, but was then undone by an ankle injury sustained during a pre-season game which required surgery.
On Saturday, Leinster ran out impressive 24-13 winners against Pat Lam's champions, with Conan and back-row colleagues Dan Leavy and Sean O'Brien receiving the lions' share of the plaudits.
"I was in the changing room beforehand and was a bit overcome with nerves," admits the 24-year-old (right).
"They kind of went when I ran out and saw the stadium full to capacity, the crowd and the atmosphere. It was great to be back and playing well.
"I was very enthusiastic. It was my first top-level game for a while and I was blowing after a few minutes. It started at a very high pace - you don't have long to blow the cobwebs off and just get into it.
"When we settled ourselves and collected our thoughts, dictated the pace and tempo a bit better, I settled into it a bit more.
"Those first few collisions and phases were a bit hectic. At times you have a bit of an out-of-body experience and you're lost in the moment. When you snap back to reality (and stay) in the moment I was much more focused."
The road to recovery is often a long and lonely one, and the rewards for countless hours spent on the physio's table or rehabbing in the gym are rarely immediate.
And given the wealth of back-row talent at Leinster's disposal - particularly the emergence of Josh van der Flier and Leavy - it could be all too easy to begin feeling like yesterday's man.
Conan, though, found an unlikely source of distraction to help him avoid the pitfalls associated with prolonged periods on the sidelines.
"Myself, Cian Healy and Mick Kearney are doing a woodwork course at the moment. . . it's a bit different," he explains.
"I feel bad now for the two lads; Cian is trying bend the wood and break it with his hands, and Mick is kind of all over the place.
"He can't cut a straight line for the life of him - I think I'm a class above the two lads when it comes to woodwork.
"I am envious of how the lads have gone in the last 12 months. You have seen people step up and take the mantle. Josh has been absolutely fantastic.
"Dan too, two lads I have known for many years. It is a great to see them going so well and taking their opportunity. I am envious of how well they have played. I want that for myself now that I am back and fit finally."
With Jamie Heaslip away on Ireland duty for the next month, Conan has an opportunity to occupy the base of Leinster's scrum for the time being, starting with Saturday's trip to Zebre.
Byrne to fill gap
A combination of the upcoming Internationals and injury have left Leinster with just Ross Byrne as their only fit out-half for the weeks ahead.
With Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery in Chicago and Cathal Marsh out for eight weeks with a finger injury, the 21-year-old Byrne looks certain for a first start of the season in Saturday’s Pro 12 clash against Zebre. The Italians will be full of confidence after their win at Edinburgh, but backs coach Girvan Dempsey insists Byrne is up to the task.
“Ross is a cracking footballer, he’s got a really good skill-set ,” said Dempsey. “He’s growing in confidence, worked really well on his game and his kicking off the tee is excellent, so hopefully he’ll be involved this weekend and get a chance.”