Friday 13 December 2019

'Wherever the ball goes, you have to be ready to attack'

Half-back switch out west has produced outstanding results for ex-Gonzaga man

Conor McKeon
Conor McKeon

Daragh Small

Conor McKeon nearly missed the chance to celebrate a PRO12 victory with his Connacht team-mates. His professional career looked to be over when Pat Lam said he was a surplus to requirements, but the Rathfarnham native endeavoured to show what he was capable of, in any position on the field.

Back in 2015-'16 McKeon was in his final year of the Connacht academy. He had already featured five times internationally at U-20 level, and his talent was undoubted, but his size was a problem.

It was the Wednesday before Connacht's trip to face Ulster at Kingspan Stadium in March 2016, and McKeon was summoned to Lam's office.

"I wouldn't be the biggest rugby player on the planet and it was pretty physical in the midfield. The way the game was going, I was just not big enough in defence," says McKeon.

"It wasn't a case of being a bad defender, I was throwing myself in there. It was just a numbers game at times. I tended to get blown away.

"I had a meeting with Pat and Nigel Carolan one day, and I was told that I was gone. It was upsetting, I didn't know what the future held in store for me. Those were some bad days. I was in my last year of the academy and they had to make a call.

"Pat just said no and I was crushed. But Willie Ruane and Nigel got together and thought that if it was only my size holding me back, it wasn't a good enough reason to let me go. I was really keen, and I worked hard - they didn't just want to throw that away.

"They asked me about moving into nine where you wouldn't have as many big collisions. I was in a second year Commerce degree in NUI Galway. My thinking was I may as well be down here in final year in college and in the academy. I was working away at trying to be a scrum-half, as opposed to just being down here and going out every second night of the week. I bit their hand off for it."

Since then McKeon has graduated from his Commerce degree and gone on to earn some valuable work experience with professional services firm EY in Galway.

But the more difficult transition awaited on the rugby pitch, and the 24-year-old found it tough to swap over half-back jerseys.

"At the start it was just about trying to get to every ruck. I was fit enough as a ten but nine is a different level. Wherever the ball goes you have to be ready to attack," says McKeon.

"At the very start we played against Montpellier. It was in August and I was given 20 minutes off the bench. I remember thinking I have never been as tired trying to get around to the rucks.

inclined "Then there are the things like trying to sweep the ball up off the floor. At the start I was inclined to pick the ball up. And then in defence it was just a different role when you are in behind and trying to fill in gaps where you can.

"At the start it was definitely tough getting used to the running and trying to get the legs used to it. Trying to sweep the ball away quickly is still a work-on, you can never be too good at it."

Another crucial part of his new position was the added responsibility of his relationship with the man outside him.

For so long McKeon had been the one who pulled the strings from the No 10 slot, but now he had to take the passenger seat.

"You would both be the game-managers. Having played a lot at ten, and all of my underage rugby there, although I played a small bit at scrum-half in my early years in school, until I was moved at junior cup level. It's probably given me a good balance," adds McKeon.

"You can appreciate what a ten wants when it might be better to kick off at nine than at ten. Having that experience it's handy because you know the pressure your ten is under.

"You can help him out with that. Between you, you can manage getting the team around the pitch that bit better."

But since he moved to Galway from Dublin, McKeon always had the ideal role model in former Gonzaga colleague and his old prefect John Cooney.

They both arrived in the Sportsground at the same time and while Cooney rivalled Kieran Marmion for the No 9 jersey, McKeon had to find his feet in the academy.

But after he was given his lifeline in 2015-'16, the Buccaneers clubman gained a new appreciation for the game, and he has used the new Ulster scrum-half as his inspiration.

"It was nice to have someone familiar when I came down to Galway. John and I ended up playing a few Eagles games together that year as a nine and ten combination," says McKeon.

"And then when I knew I would be moving to nine he was brilliant. He would always be giving you advice and encouraging you.

"He had pointers here and there. And as part of the seniors we would always do extras together after training, and on our days off.

"We would be very close friends. I am missing him now that he has gone up north but he is doing really well. John's never had it easy. We lived near to each other in Dublin. I'm Rathfarnham and he is Terenure.

"He was in Leinster then when there was a lot of good scrum-halves.

"He had shoulder surgeries and he is 27 now but finally got his break this year.

"It's brilliant. He is a poster boy for keeping your head down and working hard and sticking with it."

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