Friday 23 March 2018

Tony Ward: Jack Conan has what it takes to make next step...Over to you, Joe

Leinster’s rising star Jack Conan is tackled by Ulster’s Andrew Warwick at the RDS on Saturday
Leinster’s rising star Jack Conan is tackled by Ulster’s Andrew Warwick at the RDS on Saturday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Hardly a match to set heartbeats racing and yet it had enough to keep the Leinster and Ulster faithful coming back for more. Yes, it was low at times on quality but in terms of endeavour and commitment what we witnessed once again at the RDS was total. And Matt O'Connor and his coaching staff will be advancing into the New Year the happier as Ulster continue to drift from one mediocre performance to another.

Neil Doak, and Jonny Bell have some serious work ahead. The sum of the parts is nowhere near as good as the individual components right now. The Champions Cup campaign is over for Ulster, making a place in the Pro12 top four and by extension qualification for Europe 2015 absolutely essential.

They have the talent, they have the infrastructure, not least in that Friday night Ravenhill factor, but right now for whatever reason they are drifting aimlessly from match to match.

All the right things are being said and no doubt the work is being put in between matches but whether it is a confidence thing or whether just a group in transition (that covers a multitude), the end product lacks conviction.

It would be unfair to Leinster to suggest Ulster's demise this time out was entirely of their own making and yet sloppy and inaccurate passing at key moments, lateral attacking and indiscipline made a difficult task nigh on impossible for the visitors to the RDS.


The game-changing moment came in the last minute before the interval when Dan Tuohy was penalised for slowing down Leinster possession in front of his posts, shipping a yellow card as well as the three-point penalty to gift the home team a lead they did not deserve going into the break. From then on there was no argument as the better team upped the ante and took control.

And while I have seen it suggested since that Ian Madigan's somewhat cheeky second-half try (making it effectively a ten-point binning) represented a lack of concentration on the part of the Ulster defence, I don't share that view.

Naturally, it was compared with Ronan O'Gara's successful effort a level up but here again I think that analysis unfair. It was typical Madigan and why he has that X-factor that marks him out as second only to Johnny Sexton in my book.

You see, even if he had made a mess of it (and he almost did by way of the quick tap on the move), it wouldn't stop him trying again. You cannot buy that confidence and self-belief. And just as Joe Schmidt goes with his gut in selection so too does Madigan in his playmaking role. The decision as to who should wear ten against the Italians in the absence of Sexton is a no-brainer.

He is still some way off the level of tactical kicking required. The player himself, despite opinion to the contrary, will know his kicking out of hand needs to be better weighted and better angled than was often the case at the RDS on Saturday. That comes with increasing game time in the pivotal position which he will continue to get. Tough on Jimmy Gopperth, I know, but that is the reality of life in the fast lane of modern professional rugby where immediate needs override everything - concussion and injury excluded.

From Doak's perspective, Peter Nelson (particularly) and to a lesser extent Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe had their moments, while Tuohy (a forward I really rate), Callum Black and Roger Wilson did well up front. But this was Leinster's day and Leinster's bragging rights as the final scoreline amply reflected the second-half difference between the sides.

Madigan with 19 points including that opportunist try would on another day been given the man of the match award but on this occasion one young man stood apart. Twenty-two-year-old Jack Conan is everything you are now seeing and more. At the post-match interview Leo Cullen referred to his diligence in training.

Yes, I would certainly echo that but what Conan brings to the table more than anything is a fundamental footballing intelligence. He is blessed with all the physical attributes for sure but it is game reading in the heat of the moment that has long marked him out as being above the ordinary.

Having coached him at St Gerard's, I know his game better than most. I make that point because in suggesting him good enough even at this stage in his development to go to the next stage, I make that call objectively and only (as always) with the best interests of Irish rugby at heart. Conan is good enough to play Test rugby now.

That said, I would prefer to see him introduced on the blindside of the scrum rather than middle of the back-row. Pushed for the ideal combination on the assumption Sean O'Brien is not ready but that Jamie Heaslip is, I would say Conan at six, Peter O'Mahony wearing seven and Heaslip in between.

Quite apart from the footballing intellect to which I have referred, Conan has dexterity on his feet (a la Philip Matthews) which makes him a real handful given his size and low body position when busting the gainline. He is comfortable in possession with a deft offload allied to athleticism out of touch that adds another string to his bow.

Should Joe Schmidt throw him in for Rome? Probably not. But immediate inclusion at Carton House is a given. Schmidt is a gut-driven coach, and he knows exceptional talent when he sees it. Conan is all of that and more and is good enough right now for the match-day 23.

There were other positives too on Saturday for O'Connor and by natural extension Schmidt. In order of priority, Luke Fitzgerald (confidence growing and feet dancing to the right attacking beat), Jordi Murphy (an outstanding 80 minutes), Dave Kearney and Luke McGrath.

Josh van der Flier too made a very real mark in trying circumstances. Not so long ago, if someone had suggested a Leinster back-row of Murphy, Van der Flier and Conan to face down Ulster in must-win New Year derby, they'd be calling the assistance of medics in white coats! Put it all together and it has earned O'Connor the break he now deserves.

Stars' loyalty to the cause a priceless asset

Many of the young lads making their way through the various academies spend their spare time coaching in their former schools. It is a win/win arrangement where so many of those now appearing in the shop window of Irish rugby bring their new-found expertise to the benefit of even younger lads coming through the schools system just as they did themselves.

The ripple effect is immense with the reality that becoming a professional rugby player is actually possible. I guess as a sport we are lucky in that unlike soccer our stars are here, and they are real and are accessible.

They are also, and I make no apologies for saying this, very grounded. Few if any lose the run of themselves.

On Saturday immediately following the game at the RDS, I was involved in the organisation of an annual fixture between St Gerard's and Glenstal at Junior and Senior level.

The matches were scheduled for Donnybrook at 5 30 about an hour or so after the Leinster/Ulster game had finished. There in situ overseeing the under 16 lads they coach were Stevie Crosbie and Jack Conan, Leinster squad members both. You cannot place a value on that loyalty. Leo Cullen describes Conan as diligent. I echo that sentiment in every way.

Irish Independent

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