'If we want to be best, we have to be more clinical'
The Big Interview: Jack Conan
With a full festive fixture list to contend with, like most professional athletes, Christmas is a time of restraint for Leinster Rugby players. Well, up to a point. As Jack Conan explains, there is still room for the good things in life. Some of them anyway.
"Absolutely, you have to enjoy the day and that includes all the trimmings. The turkey and the ham, spuds, even the stuff nobody likes like the Brussels sprouts. I suppose the big difference is that we don't get the same amount of down time and we'd be leaving the late nights and the over-indulgence to the rest of the family but it was still a lovely day at home in Bray."
A proud son of Bray he may be, but the Wicklow native wasn't averse to crossing the county boundaries on the big day and some time was spent in Killester where his mother is from. But then it was back home, to lend a hand in the kitchen.
"Well, maybe not in the kitchen - I'd be killed if I tried to take credit there - but I did set the table and I poured a few drinks! It was a lovely day. Spending time with relatives in North Dublin where my mum is from but then it was back to Bray. We'd normally get to spend time in Carlow as well where dad is from but this year it was an all-Bray affair and a few relations came to us. But it was an early night with the trip to Limerick the day after."
It's been well documented that Leinster had to balance the books over the two interprovincial Guinness Pro12 fixtures and Conan was quite vocal in the aftermath of the Munster game regarding the criticism that had come their way from some elements of the media. He elaborates further on his frustrations.
"Some of the stuff that was said and written was hugely frustrating because it showed a lack of understanding of the selection policy around this time of the year for all the provinces but it also showed a lack of respect for the team that took to the field in Thomond Park.
"We are all Leinster players. We all play for Leinster and wish to represent Leinster to the best of our abilities. Leo and the coaches picked a team good enough to win and we believed we would win. But we didn't perform to the level we are capable of. Munster played very well and were fully deserving of their win but for people to say we disrespected the competition or whatever was wide of the mark. We just weren't good enough."
Three games in 11 days meant there was a quick turnaround after that game and the players coming back in gave everyone a boost, admits Conan.
"Massively. They brought an energy to the place. After a loss like that you could get down or be deflated but with a five-day turnaround we were straight back in on Tuesday and had to get on with it.
"The focus was on recovery but then you had the lads coming in and they were lifting lads because Ulster was another massive game and we had to get right for it as they had an extra three days prep under their belts. We couldn't afford to be undercooked or under-prepared."
For 45 minutes or so there wasn't any such suggestion as Leinster raced into a 22-0 and three-tries-to-nil lead. All going to plan.
"It was a very satisfying period for us and stuff that we had worked on and a few training ground moves came off. The disappointing thing is that we couldn't add the fourth try but I think if you had offered anyone a 22-7 win at the start of the day, they'd take it.
"Ulster were only behind us in the table, looking to close the gap to the top and cement their own place in the play-off places. You look at the quality of their back three of Bowe, Trimble and Piutau and I think some of our defensive work to keep them quiet was really good.
"But if we want to be the best in the Guinness Pro12 and in Europe we have to be more clinical and I think it's great to come from a win like that and still want more. So overall I think we'll take the win but we move on looking to improve again. It's motivation for this week the fact that we weren't consistent over the 80 last week."
The final game in the 11-day trilogy is the visit of Zebre to the RDS. I put it to Conan that it's the ideal game to start the new year.
"I think the danger with playing Zebre is that people underestimate them and there is that expectation to just win and get the bonus point.
"But we saw earlier this season we played Connacht, got a good win and then played Zebre and we were a bit flat. It was very tight for maybe 50, 60 minutes. We were only two points up at half-time. It was wet, it maybe suited them but we were patient and we managed to pull away towards the end.
"So the similarities are there coming off a good win against Ulster and now facing Zebre. We have to do our jobs. I think the most important thing is that we focus on our own performance and focus on giving plenty of moments to the crowd to get behind. If we can do that, we won't be far off."
Then it's into the Champions Cup.
"I don't like looking too far ahead but I think it's really positive that we have two games in a row in the RDS. We've turned it into a really difficult place to play for other teams and remaining unbeaten there in 2016 is something that we can be really proud of.
"The support there is brilliant and we feed off the energy they give us. The full house against Ulster was brilliant, we had that against Connacht too and hopefully we can get a few more days like that between now and the end of the season. If we can get through Zebre in one piece we will then turn our attention to Montpellier which is I suppose a game that could decide the pool. It's a massive game in our season so it should be a brilliant occasion in the RDS."
So new year, new year's resolutions?
"I'm not a huge man for resolutions but I do have targets for the rest of the season. I suppose looking at this time last season I was coming into 2016 with niggles and injury issues whereas this year, I'm feeling good and feel like I'm playing some of the best rugby of my career.
"I think Leinster is in a really good place and I'm just looking forward hugely to playing my part in the next few months as we fight for two trophies. It's an exciting time for us all. I hope 2017 will be a big year."