Friday 23 March 2018

Conan: I think we've given Leo a headache

Jack Conan breaks through the tackle of Glasgow's Rob Harley during last week's game at the RDS
Jack Conan breaks through the tackle of Glasgow's Rob Harley during last week's game at the RDS
Jack Conan before last week's Pro12 clash against Glasgow

Marcus Ó Buachalla

The first mid-term break of the school year means one thing. Hallowe'en. Trick or treat. Mandarins and monkey nuts. Fireworks and bonfires. The morning rush hour a thing of the past.

One thing it shouldn't mean is mid-season reports, but for some Leinster players, that's what it feels like. All they are waiting on is the letter through the post.

Five Pro12 games into a 22 game domestic calendar and already people are taking stock. A bit early perhaps but young No 8 Jack Conan is happy to learn the lessons.

"We always knew that this first block of games would be of huge importance to our season, albeit so early," he says.

"We had planned on the Irish guys being away for another week or so but it wasn't to be. But still for the five-game block that we had without them, we knew that we had to stand up and be counted.

"Of course you want to win all your games, but three from five and then a losing bonus point against Edinburgh is a decent return for us as a group, a young group.

"I think we can take confidence from that as we set about refocusing on the next block of games and getting used to having those Irish lads back in with us."


A young group it may be but was the 23-year-old from Wicklow the archetypal old head on young shoulders in the Leinster dressing-room? After all he only made his debut 18 months ago away to Cardiff but has since added a further 25 Leinster appearances and a full Irish cap to his CV.

"In some ways I was but then again I don't think I ever overstepped the mark," he says. "If I felt it appropriate to contribute of course I would, but look around the dressing-room there were still guys like Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden and Mike McCarthy and Kev McLaughlin.

"So there was still plenty of experience there, so I didn't feel like I had to be front and centre.

"I suppose with so many young lads in the back-row putting their hands up they could maybe relate to me and my experiences, as last year was my first proper year with regular exposure to senior rugby with Leinster, but I am still learning my trade too and I am conscious of that."

Having been part of the initial Ireland squad it can't have been easy to watch on over the last few weeks. But like the rest of us, Conan took to his couch and roared them on.

"As a fan - because that's what you become again - it was brilliant to see them top the group and beat the French but then to see lads after the quarter-final, that I had trained with all summer and I knew the pain and the sacrifice that they had invested into that journey, that was tough," he says.

"Your heart went out to them on a personal level for what they went through against Argentina.

"I'd have loved to have been there but very quickly I refocused on Leinster.

It was brilliant to be involved in that pre-World Cup camp, to win a first cap against Scotland, but you have to take your learnings and move on pretty quickly. I was straight into a pre-season friendly with Leinster and then the first Pro12 game was upon us."

That transition now awaits 20 of his colleagues, or 16 when you take out those involved last Friday against Glasgow. It won't be easy.

"We have already seen this week and indeed last week their hunger and enthusiasm to get back to work," says Conan. "Tadhg (Furlong) arrived home from the World Cup on the Monday and was straight back in on Tuesday wanting to get up to speed as quickly as possible.

"The same this week for those that got more game time with Ireland, they are just very eager to get going again, to refocus."

Some World Cup players began their journey back into the blue fold in the RDS last Friday in a tough win against reigning champions Glasgow, for others it will be on Sunday away to Treviso.

"This week we have a little bit more time than usual to get our prep right and I know that Leo (Cullen), the coaches and all the players will use every last minute available to get that right," says Conan.

Treviso are no light touch either. Perennial contenders for the wooden spoon they may be, but they seem to have a hold over Leinster.

"They are a tough team to play especially away from home. We could have lost the game last year as their kicker missed a conversion and a late penalty. The season before that we only won by a point," adds Conan.

"They will also have their Italian players back. They've picked up four losing bonus points so they have been competitive in most of their games when not at full strength.

"We have to be ready to front up early and to learn from the experience of the last few seasons."


And what of the experience of the last five games?

"I think it was a massive window for this group," he says. "The younger lads and the Academy lads that have stepped up have seen now what it takes to play at this level and not only to play at this level but to compete and win at this level.

"Leo asked us to make it as difficult as possible for him to hand jerseys to the returning players after the World Cup and I think we have done that.

"There is going to be a massive edge to training and the competition for places will be fierce, but we are only two games into a block of 16 games in a row and there will be injuries or loss of form or whatever.

"And we now have a squad of players that have been tested at this level and who know they can compete.

"There is no substitute for game time and minutes exposed to this level and players have that now.

"We are only two points outside the top four so I think, I hope, that Leo now has a headache and that's what we all wanted from this period of games - Leinster in a good place and ready to drive on for the rest of the season."

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