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Andrew Conway still winging it with the best of them after getting another chance to prosper

Hat-trick heroics against Japan signifies return to big stage as All Blacks showdown looms

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Ireland's Andrew Conway of Ireland dives over to score the first of his three tries during the Autumn Nations Series victory over Japan at Aviva Stadium. Photo:Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland's Andrew Conway of Ireland dives over to score the first of his three tries during the Autumn Nations Series victory over Japan at Aviva Stadium. Photo:Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland's Andrew Conway of Ireland dives over to score the first of his three tries during the Autumn Nations Series victory over Japan at Aviva Stadium. Photo:Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

From all black to All Blacks. Just as Ireland unfurled the emergence of a new identity last weekend, so too perhaps did winger Andrew Conway seek to re-establish his.

Presuming Andy Farrell rewards the same contingent against New Zealand this weekend, the Munster man will hope to firmly frank his place in the international pecking order.

His hat-trick against the Japanese not merely crowned a revitalised Irish approach but also signalled the resurgence of one who had endured myriad difficulties in recent times; in the last campaign he had crossed just once in 12 starts during a hampered campaign.

When rugby resumed during the pandemic, the narrative had been a lot different; his name popped up in various notional Lions’ squad ruminations – even his own – such had been his scintillating form before the 2020 Nations hiatus, particularly in the win against Wales.

He did complete 2020 with a trio of international starts but the second half of the season was a frustrating one for the 30-year-old.

Since impressing in Munster’s 27-25 defeat to Leinster in Dublin, instead of entering his peak, he plummeted into a trough.

A head injury complicated matters and he slipped from the international scene, though still featuring in selected gatherings, as James Lowe, Keith Earls Jordan Larmour and Hugo Keenan copper-fastened their roles.

His provincial appearances had also suffered, albeit a resurgent display against Edinburgh in the spring hinted at some semblance of a return to well-being, and he did make a brief return last summer against the USA.

Even then, Robert Baloucoune seemed to be the coming man after a mightily impressive debut.

Simon Zebo’s heralded return home could have added more storm clouds but instead they helped to clear them; a reinvigorated mental attitude combined with a restoration of physical fitness sparked new life.

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“He’s still one of the premier wingers in Ireland and still one of the important players – phenomenal in the air, his finishing ability, his X-factor,” Johann van Graan had reminded us last March.

Last Saturday, after an energising return to Munster red in the season’s early throes, vividly illustrated that assertion from his provincial coach.

Now he should get the opportunity to line out against the All Blacks for the first time in his career, after the
all-court game helped to tear the hapless Japanese to shreds last weekend.

“Probably my training plan,” he reveals when prodded to explain his explosive return to the pulsing heartbeat of the international stage for the 27th time, as a second career hat-trick lifted his try tally to 13.

“Just trying to get the balance between my training habits and not overthinking it.

“At different stages of your career there’s an experience you can fall back on, there’s adapting and taking what’s been good and leaving what hasn’t served you. Just enjoying rugby I suppose and getting out there and taking it for what it is, a game of rugby. Sometimes they work out great, other times they don’t.

“From a winger’s perspective I was at the end of three tries at the weekend but it’s the other parts of the game that you wouldn’t necessarily see unless you are in camp and you really know what you are looking at.

“It’s really great to score a few tries and be involved in a really strong team performance. I just try to enjoy it as much as I can.”

Ireland’s 11th-minute try typified Conway, winning a Japanese box-kick 30 metres from his own line before finishing the try 45 seconds later after Jamison Gibson-Park’s neat grubber.

His second and third tries affirmed the art of a consummate finisher but all facets of his play, on and off the ball, were prominent.

“It was just great to get the confidence boost to be selected first and foremost. Coming in here, the great thing about this squad is a lot of people didn’t necessarily know where they stood in terms of the perceived pecking order. So to get picked was obviously brilliant and I just knew that was only half the battle.

“The bulk of the battle is to then perform when you’re given the opportunity. It was obviously an enjoyable day and it was nice to be back playing in front of a full crowd and everything that goes with it. So yeah it was a positive day.

“Of course it’s great to score, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes other things are more satisfying. I won’t go through every wicked detail but sometimes you’ve been working on (something), talking about it behind the scenes, you can put it into action in training.

“And then to be involved in different things. It is great to be on the end of scoring a try but to be able to add a few more strings to you bow and see a bit of positive gains in other areas that I might not necessarily have done before. That’s probably more satisfying.”

Despite their allure, Conway will try not to be distracted by the looming challenge of a side he has never faced.

“They’re the standard-bearers in world rugby for as long as I’ve ever been watching rugby. It’s going to be very intense. But today’s training session was very intense. And last week was also intense,” adds Conway.

“Whenever we are playing an international, we don’t take anyone less or more – you know what I mean? Obviously there is going to be more chat around this, the public are going to be that little but more excited. You get a few more text messages during the week.

“But that’s the only change really. You have to try and keep to your process, as cliched as it sounds.

“You want to make weeks as similar as they can be. You’re going to be up some weeks and it’s not always going to be like for like. You try to keep it all as level as you possibly can.

“At the end of the day, it is a rugby match on Saturday and you don’t want to make it bigger than it is. You want to go out and perform to the level we’re capable of but not overthinking it at the same time.”

Calibrating the balance between thought and deed has served him well so far this season.


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