Friday 17 August 2018

'It will be fierce but we are ready for that fight'

The big interview: Jack Conan

Jack Conan during training. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Conan during training. Photo: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

The week has been kind to Jack Conan. He is fit and available for Leinster Rugby as they take on the reigning Guinness PRO14 champions tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium. The Wicklow man hasn't appeared since injuring his knee against the Ospreys three weeks ago. Not serious enough to leave him out for long but serious enough to keep him out of the quarter-final against Saracens. For a player that had started all six pool games at No 8, it wasn't easy looking in.

"I'm no different to any other player with an injury. It's frustrating, you want to be out there contributing and making a mark on the game but look by the same token it could have been worse.

"The lads did brilliantly. Let's not forget that was the two-time reigning European champions we were facing and I thought the lads did brilliantly. Controlled the game really well and because of them and their performance it gave fellas like me another target to aim for and thankfully I have hit all my markers this week and I hope to be involved in some capacity at the weekend."

You venture that it must be doubly frustrating when it's a minor injury. Always in the mix but just not quite there.

"If it's a long-term injury you could be set a target of four weeks, eight weeks, whatever, but with these short-term ones you are literally going day to day sometimes.

"So every day there is that hope. Am I coming out of the boot today? No? Right tomorrow then. Then what's the next target and marker to attain. The slightest of improvements can seem like huge victories because of the knock-on effect that can have but likewise the slightest setback can have everyone re-assessing and looking to a game seven days later.

Jack Conan in action against Exeter Chiefs earlier this season. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Jack Conan in action against Exeter Chiefs earlier this season. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

"So it is frustrating but by the same token I would like to think that there are a few more big weekends left in this team yet and you have to take that slightly longer-term approach and hopefully the boys perform and give you that next day or next game to aim for. And that's what happened here. I can't wait to get going again."

Impressed

Conan played against Scarlets in March in the PRO14 and also came off the bench against a number of their players when Ireland faced Wales in the Six Nations. He also scored a try in the 15-27 loss in last year's PRO12 (as it was then) semi-final in the RDS. He is well familiar with their players and is impressed by the journey they've been on.

"I think if you look at the last two to three years they have been a force in the PRO14. Obviously last year and winning it grabbed all the headlines, and rightly so, but they had been building and it wasn't as if they just landed on a once-off performance last season. They came to Dublin twice in a week and won both. In an RDS where we hadn't lost all season and in the Aviva with mostly Munster fans. They deserved their shot and peaked at just the right time.

Jack Conan. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Conan. Photo: Sportsfile

"But for us we feel that we left a lot behind that day. The biggest game of our season and we just didn't perform and that's a credit to them but it hurt hugely and it's probably still etched on our minds as we head into Saturday. If you aren't on your game 100pc these lads will punish you and coming to Dublin or the Aviva is nothing to them. They can win anywhere."

Conan, who could win cap number 70 tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium, is particularly impressed by the back-row combinations that may well be coming his way.

"Scarlets have a different class of back-row to the rest of the PRO14 in my book. Superb operators across the flanks and then at No 8 and of course Tadhg Beirne is well capable of playing there too and we see how effective he can be.

"They've had the most turnovers of any team this season so we know what we are going to be facing. If we don't protect our own ball that will give them little victories and that in turn gives momentum and before you know it we're chasing the game.

"So look, whether it's Barclay or Davies or Shingler or Beirne we face, it will be a fight and the battle on the ground will be fierce but I think we are ready for that fight."

He also expects a certain type of game.

"The weather forecast is supposed to be good so I think we've got two teams here who like to play and for the supporters in the Aviva and hopefully it's close to a sell-out again, that will be all that they will need to create the atmosphere we all want."

Talk of the Aviva leads us down the Six Nations path and while he is incredibly proud of the medal that now has pride of place in the Conan homestead in Wicklow, the campaign also left a feeling of 'what if'.

"I started the Italy game. Massive honour. To be asked by Joe to start a game in the Six Nations was brilliant and I was just gutted that I had to be taken off at half-time with an injury.

"I managed to make it back then for the Wales game and I came off the bench to see out the game but that was my last involvement in a match-day 23. I learned some really hard lessons that day.

"I was entrusted to do a job off the bench and it just wasn't my best performance. What I learned as much as anything is that even the smallest error can have a massive impact on the team especially when playing at that higher level. So when you get that opportunity whether that's for 80 minutes or two minutes, you have to take it and I didn't."

Involvement

He reflects now on his involvement in Twickenham - "very grateful for the opportunity presented by Joe to be 24th man and to witness up close that experience of 80,000 against you!" - but with a healthy dose of perspective too. Only a few weeks ago one of his close friends Steve Crosbie hung up his boots having lined out with Conan in Leinster before moving to Munster and then Connacht. Chats with his old school buddy made 25-year-old Conan see the wood for the trees.

"I get to wake up every morning doing the job I love and not everyone can say that.

"And I look at Steve and I know he's going to excel at whatever he puts his mind to next but his career gone in a flash.

"And that's the reality. Playing professional sport is incredibly tough but also hugely rewarding and if we can remember that and enjoy the good days when they come, it's not so bad after all."

Conan back where he belongs and hoping for the good days again.

Irish Independent

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