Conan the vegetarian bounces back - Leinster number 8 learning from his mistakes
You'll remember the endgame against Wales in Lansdowne Road last season as one of those little periods when the Grand Slam campaign might have been dumped in the Dodder. Your abiding impression probably is that Wales blew it. And they did. But with four minutes left Ireland needlessly had opened the door to a try for the away side that made it a three-point game.
The man who turned the handle was Jack Conan. It was his first Six Nations tournament. Having started against Italy, he was forced off with a shoulder injury, but was delighted to be back on the pitch against Wales.
So there he was, not long into the action and looking to make an impression. At a defensive ruck 35 metres from the Ireland line, where they were well numbered up, he took off on one of those high-risk missions where there is no middle ground: bury man and ball and get a clap on the back, or prepare an excuse en route to your own sticks. Conan was already formulating the words as Steff Evans crossed in the corner for Wales. It was a stressful finish.
In the changing room after the game Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell left a calling card with their replacement number eight.
"Oh, in my head I know I've made a mistake so it has ruined my couple of days post-match," he says. "It's all you can think about and you're just counting down the time. It's building inside you and you know that this is going to be brought up on video and you're going to have to put your hand up and say: 'That was me. I was wrong'. It's never an easy thing to do but it's part of the learning process. Thankfully, we won the game because it would have been a hell of a lot worse if we'd lost and I'd made such a mistake."
Still, there was a price to be paid. Scotland were the next partner on Ireland's dance card and Conan found himself outside the match-day 23. Coincidentally, the benefactor, Jordi Murphy, was the same man who would edge Conan onto Leinster's bench for the knockout stages of the Champions Cup.
So a stellar season on the silverware front, but not quite what he had been dreaming about when 2018 rolled around and Jack Conan was set to convince lots of us that Jamie Heaslip's loss was a hole being filled. The previous summer, while Ireland's marquee names were down in New Zealand with the Lions, he had been outstanding on the tour to US and Japan. Yes, it was Tier 2 opposition, but there were a raft of greenhorns on board and Conan looked the part as a natural leader. So it was all teed up for the next season. Then injury got in the way, his form suffered, and he had to reset his sat nav.
"Tough, but fair when I look back at it," he says of the Leinster back-row reshuffle. "I don't think I was playing particularly well at the time. I actually think the injury did me good. I got time for my body to settle. It was my knee that was at me at the time but my shoulder and neck were causing me problems and I wasn't confident in my body and its ability.
"Even though it was devastating to miss out, not to be part of the quarter-final against Saracens was so tough but I was able to get fitter than I'd been for a long period of the season. I got more confidence in my body and my ability because I had those few weeks of rehab - because everything that was going on with me was holding me back. It was devastating, so annoying to lose that starting spot and not run out as a starter in the European final, but Jordi stepped in and did a fantastic job and it was great that he got to go out on such a high as a starting player. I wish it had been me but it was nice for him and I'm glad that I got the chance to get my foot back in the door before the end of the season, starting the semi and final of the Pro14."
Conan first wore green in the preamble to the 2015 World Cup. His start against Scotland was never supposed to get him on the plane for the big show, rather to recognise his progress at Leinster where he had started 13 of 22 games the previous season and looked increasingly good. And because he was expendable - avoiding injury to the main men is as big a part of the World Cup preparation as loosening the legs.
It was the guts of two years before he would get a look-in again - in last season's Six Nations. And after the Wales miscalculation he was looking at the summer tour to Australia as a chance to get back in the good books. Having come off the bench in the first Test defeat in Brisbane, he was a starter in the series win in Sydney a fortnight later. His defence was first class.
"Yeah, that's always my big work-on - my defensive capabilities, making sure that I'm contributing on both sides of the ball. I know I'm good with ball in hand, well able to carry and to throw an offload. It's the defensive part of the game where, at times, even if I look at myself, I've been seen to have been wanting a little bit and not as effective or as dominant as I can be. So my thing from playing games is to make sure that I'm as active on one side of the ball as the other. If I am putting in good carries, I've got to be putting in good hits, winning collisions and helping the team on both sides.
"Sydney was a fantastic day for me, the biggest Test of my career by miles. To get a run-out in a series decider in Sydney . . . I'm happy with the performance I put in on the day and it was fantastic to get the win."
Already that seems a long time ago. Or maybe it's just that Conan looks a bit different these days. A leaner, greener version of what went before?
"Oh God, I was waiting for this to come up! Personally, I am not a vegan. I eat predominantly vegetarian and I have a bit of fish now and again but that's about it. And if I really wanted to sit down and have a bit of red meat I would, but at the moment I don't.
"I started the season before last, introducing it slowly and I felt better and it was helping me keep my weight down. Felt leaner, felt I could get around better, and it just suited me. And I thought: 'If this is making me feel great and I'm running around why wouldn't I stick at it?' It's something I just do. I'm not going to sit here and say I'm a vegetarian or a vegan because the lads would love that - I'm always getting abused for it. But I predominantly try to eat that way. I feel it's helping me keep my weight down; I feel healthier; I feel like I recover better from games; I'm getting fewer soft tissue injuries. This could all be coincidental, but in rugby if you get a flow to things and they're going well for you, you try not to change them and I'm sticking to that mantra at the moment."
He credits his girlfriend with the change. Eating out became easier if they went to vegetarian restaurants, and gradually the apparent benefits on the field won him over to her way of thinking. Loading protein on a meat-free diet requires a bit more planning but the food suppliers to Leinster, and in-house nutritionist Daniel Davey, are all over this. Clearly it's not exactly a trend in the squad, though, because Conan is a go-to target for the meat-eating hordes when they want a victim. The results speak for themselves however.
"Yeah, my muscle is probably the second highest it's ever been and I'm exactly where I want to be with regard to body fat, which is good," he says. "I had a Dexa scan last season which wasn't great because I'd been injured and I'd lost a bit of muscle so in comparison it looks like I've done really well with my diet. Training hard with the S&C coaches here and Dan and they've been very accommodating, making sure I get everything I need in the gym or in the nutritional sense."
So he's in fine fettle for Wasps on Friday night. The RDS will be rammed for the European opener between the holders, chasing a unique fifth title, and a club with two titles to their name.
"They're a good side and play some quality rugby," Conan says. "(Lima) Sopoaga has had a good impact with the style he plays. They have lots of quality all around the park. We haven't played them in two years but that was potentially our biggest game that year when we played them in the quarter-final and we were lucky enough to put in a good performance. With the likes of Willie le Roux and the other lads they have it's going to be an absolutely massive test. They're going well at the moment and won't fear coming over here because in previous years they've come over and won in the RDS, which not a lot of teams can say in Europe."
The 33-6 scoreline inflicted on Leinster three years ago is unlikely to repeat itself. Conan got caught that day picking up the ball in an offside position which served as an illustration of how far Leo Cullen's side were off the pace back then. Different player, different team.
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