Sunday 18 August 2019

Tony Ward: Conway tour de force shows patience and perseverance have rewards

Former Blackrock schools prodigy has overcome series of setbacks

Ireland's Andrew Conway. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Andrew Conway. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It could be best described a mixed week for Irish sport. From the highs of the Aviva on Saturday to the extreme lows at the same venue three days later. London's midweek calling added to the woe with Ireland trailing badly in the 2023 race of three. To that end today's Test against the Fijians provides opportunity on varying levels.

First up is the chance to again lift national morale and build on last weekend's exciting platform. The final scoreline against the Springboks may have been a little flattering but in terms of all round quality it represented one of the most complete performances against a traditional super power of world rugby - albeit one in decline.

Even more important in the context of the Six Nations and Japan 2019, is player development as Joe Schmidt looks to broaden the base further still. Of course winning today is fundamental but even more so is the performance against a skilful and athletic Fijian side.

Sevens is their national obsession that offers some grounding in essential skills. Watch for Timoci Nagusa, Nemani Nadolo, Ben Volavola, Leone Nakarawa and Niko Matawalu (who hasn't even made the starting line with Henry Senioli coming into the team at nine) and you won't be disappointed.

Out-half Volavola particularly caught my eye in Mitre 10 rugby this year. Not for a minute is the Ireland head coach underestimating that quality, yet given a rare window of opportunity to test resources in this three-match series he has put together a formidable line up that looks anything but like a shadow side.

Only Devin Toner and Andrew Conway start again from seven days ago with the experienced Leinster lock the lone starter in the same from the side that crushed the 'Boks.

Toner has been the ultra professional in his response to falling out of favour during last year's Six Nations campaign. Toner and Ultan Dillane make a formidable second row partnership in the absence of the rested Iain Henderson.

But if there was ever proof that patience and perseverance eventually pays off then Andrew Conway is it. Back in the mid noughties I heard of this 'wonder kid' burning it up for Blackrock College and his schoolboy soccer club St Joseph's Boys. Whether with oval or round ball, creating or scoring came naturally.

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Playing at full-back for Rock, Conway helped bring the Junior and Senior titles back to Williamstown in his fourth and sixth years respectively.

In the 2007 Junior final, Blackrock beat a St Michael's side that was driven by Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh at half back and with Alex Kelly in the centre.

Jack Kelly captained the 'Rock team but the shining light and difference between the sides that day was wearing 15. Even then the star quality and potentialwas obvious.

This is the intro to my match report in the Irish Independent the following day:

'A brilliant try from outstanding full-back Andrew Conway ensured Blackrock College retained the Schools Junior Cup (Conway had also crossed for a try in the final victory over Gonzaga the previous year when playing on the wing) in the most dramatic fashion (13-10) at Donnybrook yesterday. And while I am loathe to be over lavish in praise of any individual - particularly one of such tender years - to understate the contribution of Conway to this latest success would be wrong in the extreme'.

My report finished with this:

'But the best was yet to come by way of a superb miss out pass from George Stevens to Conway at full tilt on the counter but well inside his own half. A bewildering series of sidesteps covering half the field followed before the dream performance was complete when the brilliant full -back crossed for a try worthy of winning any title. Whisper it, but there's another Luke Fitzgerald on the way'.

That was then, this is now a decade on. In between there was another series of brilliant individual performances from Conway when, along with Brian Kingston, Brendan Macken, Jordi Murphy and Denis Buckley, Blackrock defeated Terenure 18-9 in the Senior final of 2009.

Unsurprisingly from there it was on to the Leinster Academy. Progress was made and success did follow as he broke into the Leinster senior team that would win the European Challenge Cup and Pro12 in 2012/13.

Like all budding young professionals Conway was ambitious and with the work ethic to back that ambition he made the move that I wish so many other young players, specifically in Leinster, would contemplate.

The IRFU chiefly since David Nucifora came on board has been reasonably proactive in encouraging young players in the capital to spread their wings. Still nowhere near enough have followed that advice given the talent coming through the Leinster underage system each year.

It was a big call for Conway to leave his comfort zone in 2013 and move south but he has been a revelation in every way.

Patient, determined, committed and never, ever complaining irrespective of the team or the position he is asked to play.

There is a very definite moral for every up-and-coming young wannabee. Through dad Steve, uncle Mark (McDermott) and Godfather Terry (Kennedy) the sporting DNA is good but more than anything is the attitude. Whisper it, but the new Luke Fitzgerald is here.

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