Friday 24 January 2020

'I had my tears and then I was able to treat it for what it was: a bad break'

Jack Conan tells Des Berry about his World Cup heartache and how he has a fight on his hands to regain his place at Leinster where ‘competition is crazy’

Jack Conan watches on prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Japan and Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Conan watches on prior to the 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool A match between Japan and Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

Des Berry

Jack Conan has had enough time to be able to take a somewhat philosophical view on the dramatic end to his Rugby World Cup.

Every milestone achieved on the climb to international class was building towards the biggest, brightest stage in the game.

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How many times have we heard it? The whole raison d'être of the provinces is to act as a gateway to the ultimate honour.

Players - like Conan's former team-mate Jordi Murphy - moved province just to make it to Japan.

During the summer, Conan encountered an issue with his foot that needed tender care and enough time to mend.

The rumours whistled around about the gravity of the problem as he waited to learn his fate.

"I had been kind of struggling for a while with a pain in my foot, been booted-up at one point," he said, attending the Bank of Ireland Leinster Schools Cup draw.

It was a summer of 'will I, won't I' for the Leinster No 8, losing time in his contest to challenge the supremacy of CJ Stander for Ireland.

Last season, Joe Schmidt's trust in the Munster man's reliability, resolve and durability was being tested by Ireland's staleness.

The calls had come for a more dynamic force, a more gifted offloader with the skills to break down stonewall defences. Rightly or wrongly, Stander was perceived to be vulnerable to a thoroughbred with staying power.

Jack Conan posing for a photograph with a Leinster fan before a home game last month. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Conan posing for a photograph with a Leinster fan before a home game last month. Photo: Sportsfile

The patience and perseverance of waiting on his body to play catch-up with his ambition was rewarded when Conan was cleared to play in two warm-up internationals.

"Luckily, it healed up in time for me to put in good 80-minute shifts against Wales in those back-to-back internationals before the World Cup," he said.

"It was consistently getting better, feeling better, stronger and I was gaining in confidence playing and training on softer pitches here."

The in-built feeling that this could be his time to finally outshine Stander fed the energy and enthusiasm that would have to be sustained through the intensity of the work and the drudgery of hotel life, far from home.

Publicised

In the end, it wasn't the much-publicised heat and humidity that crumbled Conan (right). It was the move to less-kind underfoot conditions where his body broke down.

"When we got over to Japan, it was way hotter, the pitches were harder," he shared.

Initially all was well with his world, until Stander was named ahead of him against Scotland and tagged a man-of-the-match to his performance. The gauntlet had been thrown down.

This came as no surprise, given the competitiveness of the man South Africa thought too small for international rugby.

As it happened, Conan had played just about an hour in place of the injured Josh van der Flier and the conversation turned towards the possibility of Stander and Conan making up two-thirds of the Ireland back row.

"The Thursday after the Scotland game, I was due to play against Japan, my first start in the World Cup. I was hugely pumped up for it. It was something I had worked towards for so long.

"During a session, I put my foot down and did enough damage to the point where I couldn't continue.

"In that moment, I thought: 'If I iced it up and do everything I can over the next 48 hours, I can still play against Japan.'"

It wasn't long before he was informed of how impossible that would be, and just how serious the injury actually was.

"A few hours later, I went to get a scan in some remote Japanese hospital. That is when I found out the bone in my foot had completely broken all the way through. There was no hope for me to play on.

"It was a pretty devastating moment to realise the World Cup was gone, before I had even started after playing only 60 minutes against Scotland."

How did you react? Did you feel like punching a wall?

"No, I'm not an angry soul."

Did you burst with emotion?

"When I got the news and I was speaking to Ciaran (Cosgrave), the (team) doctor, he was like, 'look, unfortunately, you won't be able to play any more part in the World Cup.'

"It was surreal. I wasn't overly sad. It didn't faze me. It just wasn't real to me. You could call it denial.

"I went outside and I texted my girlfriend Ali. I had to ring her back home because she was supposed to come over with her Dad the week of the Samoa game for 10 days.

"I had to tell her I was coming home. That is when it hit me," Conan admitted.

"I got really emotional. I couldn't hold it back. I was in floods of tears outside the hospital, choking up.

"That was the only time I got really emotional about it. It hit me all at once. I had my tears and then I was able to treat it for what it was - a bad break."

Returned

The mask had to be put on as Conan returned to the fold of his other family.

"I went back to the hotel and told all the lads and Joe (Schmidt) announced it in front of the media which was tough to hear.

"It is tough because this is the night before the Japan game and you don't want to distract anyone.

"You don't want the lads to be worried about you because they had such a big game to play the next day.

"I said my goodbyes to everyone, appreciated what they had to say, and took a step backwards, so as not to get in the way of anyone."

And that was it. Short and sour.

"What was supposed to be a massive personal day turned into me being nothing more than a spectator at the Japan game and catching a flight home the next day.

"It was a whirlwind three days from being selected to start against Japan to being at home on Sunday, sitting there having lunch with Ali.

"I felt terrible because I felt I could have added something and I was frustrated that I couldn't do that."

There is what happened and there is what he has done about it. The rehabilitation of Conan's foot is ongoing just as two other Leinster number eights, Caelan Doris and Max Deegan, have been named in Ireland's 'stocktake' squad.

"The competition is absolutely crazy at Leinster," said Conan. "There are so many young lads stepping up and all they ever need is an opportunity.

"Leo (Cullen) and Stuart (Lancaster) and Fel (Contepomi) and Robin (McBryde) are so good at giving opportunities when they are training well.

"You just feel a bit helpless when lads are playing so well," he stated.

"Fair play to Caelan and Max, they are unbelievably nice fellas and they work so incredibly hard.

"When you are watching them do so well, you are envious. You want that to be you, out there playing with the lads, adding to the environment."

That will come - in time.

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