Friday 23 March 2018

Brendan Fanning: Conan is surging forward on right track with Leinster

Jack Conan has grabbed his chance with both hands

Jack Conan: 'It was down in Donnybrook at a stage when it was just a prefab, no changing rooms, so it weeded out the people who didn't really want it'
Jack Conan: 'It was down in Donnybrook at a stage when it was just a prefab, no changing rooms, so it weeded out the people who didn't really want it'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

For most of Leinster's win over Ulster in the RDS last weekend, their back-row consisted of players aged 21, 22 and 23 respectively. To win a New Year's interpro with such an inexperienced unit is good going by anyone's standards, but sometimes you wonder if everyone picks up on the value of growing your own. Evidently, some of those who pay at the gate and wear the gear are tuned to a different station.

For example, a friend was sitting a few rows behind one of the Blues Brothers that day who swore to anyone who'd listen that Josh van der Flier, the runt of that back-row litter, had been flown in on a short-term contract from South Africa. Nobody was contradicting him.

We're not sure if Jordi Murphy, the eldest, and frontman, of this little boyband was given by our commentator a more glamorous background than Blackrock - in fairness he spent his formative years in Barcelona, so there is some scope there for story development - or what provenance was accorded to the man in the middle, Jack Conan. With that surname you could work something up along the lines of him being related to the vengeful warrior, or maybe that he has a link to the successful American talk show host, Mr O'Brien. Sadly not. He is from Bray.

To rob more glamour from the tale, it turns out that Conan hopped in and out of the shower after his man of the match performance against Ulster and made a bee line around the corner to a virtually empty Donnybrook. And there his duty was to help out with the St Gerard's JCT in a challenge match with Glenstal. Very flash.

You'll be hearing a lot more of Conan, despite being lined up behind Jamie Heaslip whose capacity to play week after week is freakish. We never got to hear the fan's assessment of his man of the match that evening. In the extremely unlikely event of our on-the-spot reporter following the club game then he would be familiar with Conan through Old Belvedere, who helped launch him into the pro game.

At least the No 8 is not getting carried away with it. Between his commitment to his old school, and giving Old Belvedere a dig out when he can, Conan is looking after his roots.

"Absolutely. When I was in the school and since I've left St Gerard's they've been great to me. I've gone back and done a bit of coaching. I can't be there all the time because of training (with Leinster) but I get down as often as I can. And with regards to Belvo I try and get down as much as I can. I've learnt a lot over the years playing for Old Belvedere. There are some great people in the club and they've done a lot for me as well, and really helped me develop as a player so I get down to see them as often as I can."

Given his progress now in blue that's more likely to be as waterboy in an Ulster Bank League game than as a player, but it all counts. Conan is yet another example of the domestic league providing a perfect platform for Academy players looking to secure development contracts, and beyond.

His route to this point - try-scoring debut at the tail end of last season against Cardiff, and now six starts from 12 games (with two tries) this term - is fairly typical of a talented rugby kid going from school into the sub Academy and then the Academy proper. What's slightly unusual is that a middle-order rugby school like St Gerard's would produce two players from the same team to jump through enough hoops to get into the pro game: himself and outhalf/centre Steve Crosbie, plus a handful of others playing AIL rugby.

In school, Conan, who grew up at midfield in GAA and played county under 14 and under 16 for Wicklow, was part of a group that comes along only once in a while. Remarkably, St Gerard's won three successive senior league titles, and made it to back-to-back cup semi-finals. By the end of his transition year, Leinster were winning their first Heineken Cup, and it was then he started developing notions of a career in blue.

"I didn't really want to be a professional rugby player - I wanted to play for Leinster," he says. "When you leave school, it becomes a reality: now is the time to really try and get your foot in the door and get into the Academy and really push for it. I was in the sub Academy for a year, which was tough going. I thoroughly enjoyed it but it is a tough year. It really makes you decide if you want it or not. You aren't given a lot of luxuries. You're up training very early. It was down in Donnybrook at a stage when it was just a prefab, no changing rooms, so it weeded out the people who didn't really want it. So after doing that tough year, I'm thinking: 'Yeah, I've invested time in this and it's what I really want to do'."

And nothing else - perhaps a Plan B?

"No unfortunately, I put all my eggs in one basket against my mother's advice. But I kind of backed myself that if I got my shot I'd take it. And that's something I wanted, so I'm tipping away in college at the moment, in UCD, just part-time to facilitate training. I'm doing economics and geography."

It's well in the background. Up front and centre meantime is getting as much time as possible in the highly competitive zone that is Leinster's back-row. With his talents suited to eight primarily, with the ability to play six as well, he is trying to squeeze into the space occupied by Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock and Kevin McLaughlin. Seán O'Brien can turn his hand to eight as well, as can Dominic Ryan operate effectively at six. So you need a few of these fellas to fall over before you can get to the gate leading to the pitch.

"Everyone I suppose kind of gets their opportunity through injury," he says. "It's very hard to just play better than somebody and get picked ahead of them. I've been fortunate enough to play a good bit this year because of injuries and I think when you get your opportunity you really have to put your hand up and show that you're capable of playing because you know they're not going to come round too often.

"If you don't perform on the day, a week or two later somebody else is going to be fit and they're going to be back in ahead of you. I think I'm going all right at the moment - I can't complain. I haven't really sat down to look over too much of it to be honest - I'm very kind of forward-thinking, always on to the next game."

As it happens, the next one is in Europe, where he has already had three runs off the bench this season. Castres come to the RDS on Saturday, and his involvement is likely to extend beyond the seven-minute shift he put in at the end of the away leg back in October. In the career of Jack Conan that already seems a long time ago. Blessed with a good carrying game, based on footwork as much as power, he has the dexterity to offload well - perhaps the one chart where he would top the powerhouse that is Rhys Ruddock.

He will remember though that Ruddock was a bit of a sensation himself, abandoning an under 20 World Cup to hook up with a senior Ireland tour in 2010, where he was capped. Injury has softened his cough a bit since then. But for now Conan is on the right track and chugging along nicely. Which is good news for Leinster, and anyone else who is tracking his career.

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