Friday 24 January 2020

'I was happy to stay at Leinster - I want to give myself a chance' - Will Connors backs himself for breakthrough

Having turned down a move to Connacht, Kildare flanker has caught Farrell’s eye with his PRO14 performances

25 November 2019; Will Connors poses for a portrait at a Leinster Rugby press conference at Leinster Rugby Headquarters in UCD, Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
25 November 2019; Will Connors poses for a portrait at a Leinster Rugby press conference at Leinster Rugby Headquarters in UCD, Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When the tap on the shoulder came, Will Connors listened to what the IRFU wanted him to do and thought better of it. Now, he is reaping the rewards.

Towards the end of the 2017/'18 season, the openside flanker was presented with the option of moving to Connacht to further his ambitions.

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Understandably, the union pointed to the presence of Seán O'Brien, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy ahead of him and the coming force of Scott Penny and suggested he might get more exposure elsewhere. A contract was put on the table, but the Kildare native wanted to play for his home province.

Within weeks, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and was confined to a year on the sidelines.

It was a bleak outlook for a promising player, but he's come back stronger and, when Andy Farrell gathers 45 players together for his post-World Cup, pre-Six Nations stock-take this weekend the 23-year-old will be in Abbotstown, wearing an Ireland tracksuit and ready to serve.

Three weeks ago, he was asked about his ambitions for the season.

"I'd love to play a game in Europe," he said. "Get more games under my belt. I haven't played that much. Just a clean run of games and see where it goes from there."

A Champions Cup debut is still on the long finger, Josh van der Flier's form has seen to that, but Farrell has seen something in the five PRO14 appearances he's seen so far to take a closer look.

Indeed, those five games have doubled his appearances in blue to date which is another reminder of how quickly Connors has risen into the senior ranks.

Recently, Leo Cullen outlined the normal steps Leinster players take on their journey to the top.

He was speaking about Rónan Kelleher, Max Deegan and Caelan Doris, saying that you go from club, to the provincial 'A' side, to the PRO14 team and then into Europe.

Prove yourself there, and an international call is not long in coming.

Connors, it seems, has jumped that stage. It's vindication for his decision to stay and fight for a place at his home province.

"I was happy to stay here, I hadn't been here too long, I wanted to give myself a chance," he explained.

"I back my product just as much as anyone else, and I felt that if I gave myself a chance I can get as many games as possible.

"I've come through the whole way at underage, and I've played with these guys - James Ryan, Max Deegan - the whole way, we had a strong group, they're some of my best friends, and to come into work and play with these lads, it's a dream."

One of the class of 2016, Connors missed the run to the U-20 World Cup final due to injury but did travel to Manchester to watch Ryan and Co put in Ireland's best performance at that level.

His Leinster colleague was fast-tracked into the senior international set-up alongside Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter, but the second wave of players from that team are making steady progress.

Given Farrell's background as a defence coach, it's no surprise Connors has caught the eye. Although he offers more than just an ability to defend, his completion of 48 tackles without missing one in his last two games was a standout statistic.

"The couple of games he's played, Glasgow and Connacht, are probably the two real standouts," Cullen said.

"It's just the numbers, he has a real point of difference in terms of his speed off the line, to put pressure on the opposition attack, particularly the opposition No 10.

"He's been really good there, so it wasn't a massive surprise to see him selected. He offers something that little bit different and that's what they were perhaps drawn to.

"For us, Will was unlucky not to get selected in those European games, and we've had that discussion with him.

"Josh van der Flier was really good at the World Cup and he's come back into us and most weeks, the No 7s haven't been too far off man of the match performances.

"But Will, the numbers he posted in those two games, Glasgow and Connacht, were pretty exceptional."

Those performances were built at school and polished during an extended pre-season.

Connors initially developed his superb low tackle technique at Clongowes under current Leinster Academy head and Ireland U-20 coach Noel McNamara, but he honed in on it during the summer with Leinster's contact skills coach Hugh Hogan.

Freezing

"We used to go out in the rainy, freezing days and we had a net that was up to your hip, and you had to tackle under that," Connors recalled.

"I didn't know any different, a lot of my friends who are playing club rugby, do the exact same, and it stands well to us.

"It was a great pre-season, I got a lot of gym in, lot of training, and as a group we came together a lot better.

"Me and Scott (Penny) during the summer were doing some work with Hugh Hogan, looking at videos of Dan and Josh, we'd be looking at Josh with his line-speed, then Dan is one of the best on the ground, his poaching technique is one of a kind.

"So, we're trying to build that into our game. The lads help you through it, we're a tight group of No 7s, so we're trying to help each other as much as we can."

Tonight, they'll work in tandem against Ulster and they're both set for a busy festive period as the internationals get their rest.

If Connors can keep pushing, then there is the prospect of that long-coveted European debut and, perhaps, the Six Nations to aim for in the spring

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