Andrew Conway’s balanced view is paying out rich dividends
On Ireland’s tour of New Zealand in 2012 we were given free access to the daily grind of one of the Super Rugby franchises. It was 48 hours of go wherever you want, talk to whomever you want, sit in on any meeting you fancy. For lots of reasons it was illuminating, not least the openness afforded a foreign hack with an interest in coaching.
Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to compare and contrast a few of these environments, across rugby league as well as union. From Trent Robinson’s Sydney Roosters to Eddie O’Sullivan’s US Eagles and Bernard Jackman’s Dragons, there was an interesting mix of characters and cultures on and off the field.
A common theme we hadn’t expected was the awkwardness of team meetings when the coach was asking questions and not getting answers. They were all professionals — you figured they’d be chomping at the bit. Instead it took us back to school, and double maths, when you’d be avoiding eye contact with the teacher at all costs.
In the New Zealand franchise the coach, exasperated at the lack of feedback, called for a show of hands from those who had brought their notebooks. Lots of lads were shuffling their feet and staring at the floor. Groans from the top of the room. “Jeez, how can you expect to remember anything if you don’t write it down?”
We were reminded of this last week listening to Andrew Conway describe the importance of having a written reference point. The more you commit to your diary the more bases you’ll cover.
So if the value of experience is learning from incidents along the way then a written record is the window to what happened and how you reacted.
“I go back to whenever things were really good,” he says. “How was my writing? Where was my mindset? Was it positive? Was it negative? You can be fully sure that the times when things were going well, I was grateful for things.
“I remember looking back on my notepads during the 2018 Grand Slam and I was injured for all of that and I was trying to get back, trying to get back. During the summer I looked at my notepad from then. I was wondering: ‘Where was my head at?’ And it was all about gratitude, seeing things in a positive light. Not spoofy, but honestly seeing the other blessings that I had in my life.
“And I came back from that and finished the year really well. It would have been really easy to spiral into a negative mindset at missing out on such a big event in your life. That’s just life. You’ve got to find the positives, find the things that you can be grateful for and try and move on and make sure that your energy is as good as it possibly can be.”
Conway has lots to be grateful for right now. He went into the Japan game two weeks ago needing a big performance to fight off the hot competition for Ireland’s wing spots where, fitness allowing, he is one of seven players jostling for position: Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour, Simon Zebo, Robert Baloucoune and James Lowe. Conway scored a hat-trick of tries, the second of his international career.
Then, against the All Blacks last weekend, he continued to be a menace in the air and on the ground. For a player who doesn’t have searing, international pace it was as good an eight days as he could possibly have hoped for, giving him a stat of 23 wins from 27 games in green.
Conway will have an afternoon off today against the Pumas. It’s an opportunity to review and plan some more. He is the first to accept he’s not riding a monorail with only scenic views out the window, so he’s putting some credit in the memory bank.
“That would be naive of me to think my rugby career is going to be . . . literally every single person in this Irish rugby squad has their own story and not one of them that I can think of has been in a straight line.
“Everyone has got their challenges, their ups, their downs and it’s on the individual to stay in the fight — that’s the thing we keep coming back to. You just have to. And if you don’t, obviously you don’t and then you peter off and you’re not in national squads or you’re not producing the goods for your province and that happens as well. Resilience is obviously an important tool for professional athletes so I obviously try and show that as much as I can.
“You’ve got to look at it and say: ‘Did I do everything within my control?’ Don’t get me wrong I certainly haven’t been perfect in my preparation. Sometimes I’ve underdone it, other times I’ve overdone it. You’re constantly trying to get the balance of getting the things that you know work for you, and doing them in the right way, and that’s going to change as your career goes on.”
You can see where he might be headed in the afterlife because he delivers the lines with absolute conviction. The winger could write the chapters on adversity and patience and self-improvement. As a schools player, Andrew Conway was a star; as a Leinster player, he didn’t shine that brightly; in the Munster firmament, he is a fixture. Just turned 30 he has seen a fair bit and can read a crowd.
“You get the feeling some games that it’s going to be a good day,” he says. “Even the weather: it was nice, it was calm, it was the perfect kick-off time for me — 3.15, so you’re kind of checking those things in your mind and going, ‘If any day is going to be the day, this has to be the day’, do you know what I mean?
“There was nothing really going against us. It was the same for them — same weather conditions, kick-off time but you’re trying to look for a little advantage, as much as you can just to give yourself that little bit of confidence. That’s probably more of an individual thing than a team thing.”
And the aftermath? The ratio between time spent preparing for the event, and playing it, and then the time you get to enjoy it at its purest, is skewed. But the seconds are worth minutes.
“It was emotional. You know what? It wasn’t necessarily the final whistle, it was the walk around that was just ridiculous, it was just really, really, really special, knowing there were people in the crowd that I know, not being able to see them but it was amazing.
“They’re the days you play rugby for. They’re the days you dream of, whenever you’re young, whenever you’re old when you’re going to think back on in years and years to come. But, saying that, it’s only one day, you’ve got to move on. You can’t be stuck in that day and trying to always go back to that day.
“By Monday or Tuesday morning, you turn the corner and you’ve got a new challenge and if you live too much in the past — both when the past was good and when the past was bad — it’s not going to be great. You’ve got to have a short enough memory and try and bank what’s good, but move on quickly.”
Having it down in black and white makes for easy retrieval. Overdoing it though leads to living your life by rote.
“I thought for the first few weeks of the season, for the first few months, I was planning out every week, day to day: Sunday night, planning out the whole week, exactly what I was doing for recovery. Almost planning social occasions on a day off. I think that was probably a bit much for me.
“I felt like I was doing everything as a plan but by the weekend, especially before I played Connacht for Munster, I just had this really bad anxiety and I almost felt like, ‘If I’m doing everything by the book, you better play well.’ It almost put this extra pressure on me to play well because I was so specific in what I was doing.”
He has it sorted now. The flow between training days, down days and match days are well-charted waters.