'Munster is all I will be thinking about for time being'The Big Interview: Andrew Conway
Ever since he left Leinster in 2013, Andrew Conway has always had his point to prove in some corners of Irish rugby, and finally getting his first cap for his country last weekend has taken the monkey off his back.
The 25-year-old Phibblestown native has been a stalwart in the Munster team in recent seasons, and with 18 tries in 69 appearances for the province, he had already proven his point in the south.
But the versatile full-back had long been overlooked for a place in the Irish team by Joe Schmidt, and he realised his destiny in Ireland's brilliant Six Nations victory over England at Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
This was a player who had bags of potential when he burst onto the underage international scene and ended up with ten tries in ten World Rugby Junior Championship matches for Ireland.
But after 42 games and eight tries for Leinster, he chose red instead, and last weekend vindicated his option to join Munster back then.
"It was a long time coming and something that I have been thinking about for years. You go through all sorts of mental emotions thinking at some points that it will never come, and at other stages you think you deserved ones you never got," says Conway.
"It's a weight off the shoulders now. What everyone says, is you want to get a few more caps at international level. But to get my first one, and against England, was pretty cool."
Conway replaced his injured Munster team-mate Keith Earls at half-time, and slotted in on the right side of the Irish backline for a gruelling 40 minutes of rugby in the most intense atmosphere.
"Everyone is going to be nervous for their first cap. I was nervous and it wasn't the most enjoyable day of my life, seeing if I was going to get on, seeing if you were going to have a positive impact, seeing if Ireland were going to win.
"But once you are out on the pitch, you do the warm-up and you look at who you are playing. I played against those lads for the last five or six years at different points at club level.
"It gives you confidence that you have been there. It is bigger than I have ever been in before. But with it being the first cap there are always going to be those nerves.
"But with it being England it made it that bit more special."
He didn't find out until the Thursday beforehand that he would be on the bench for that match, but he responded admirably and fronted up. It is a sign of Conway's maturity as a player and as he returns to provincial duty this weekend against Zebre, there will be an extra pep in his step.
But all season long the Munster squad have had a swagger. They conduct their game-plan in a business-like fashion, but their confidence is palpable and they have an innate ability to outlast their opponents.
"A few things aligned together which is big for us this season. With Jacques and Rassie coming in it was huge for us too. It brought about a different mindset and we needed that," says Conway.
"Felix Jones has come in and he has been incredible for someone that we were playing with last year, to be the backs coach within nine months of being forced to retire, for the team he was playing with, at the age he is.
"There have been a few things that came together for us. But we felt we were going places last year. The results were poor last year, but during pre-season we trained unbelievably hard.
"We were going okay, we had a few lapses at the start of the year but we felt we were going in the right direction. We are in the business end of the season and we are in contention but that's about where we are at the moment, so we need to keep performing."
It's a very real possibility that Munster could go all the way in two competitions this season, and claim the Champions Cup as well as the league where they have dominated for such a long time.
They are third in the standings, but that could change and a home semi-final is crucial to their chances of becoming Pro12 champions again.
The players are supremely confident beneath it all, and there could be a number of Munster players travelling with the British & Irish Lions to New Zealand at the end of the current campaign.
And those who don't make that tour still have a chance of travelling with the Irish squad to the USA, and then on to Japan in the summer. But Conway says it's all about the province for the next couple of months.
"You have to separate them. I enjoyed winning with Ireland last weekend. I have been getting those messages of congrats. But sport doesn't have the best memory, and if I'm playing against Zebre and in the coming weeks I know that starting with Munster is a big ask as well.
"The competition is great. Darren Sweetnam would have been in the Irish squad if he didn't get injured against Leinster and Ronan O'Mahony has probably been our most consistent player all year. With Earls and Simon Zebo as well, there is high equality there. We have had to raise our performance levels throughout the year with such depth there now.
"I have had one or two injuries and I knew coming back in that I needed to play close to my best coming back in or else I wouldn't get my place with the other lads flying so high. It is in the back of your mind that there is a tour. But Munster is all I will be thinking about for the time being."