Sunday 18 August 2019

'We have a chance to add to the Leinster legacy'

Big interview: Jack Conan

Jack Conan scoring a try against Toulouse at the RDS in the Champions Cup group stages. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Conan scoring a try against Toulouse at the RDS in the Champions Cup group stages. Photo: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

In one of the boardrooms at Leinster Rugby HQ in UCD, the wall is papered with images from all the professional teams that have won a trophy.

As Jack Conan sits down his eyes are drawn not to the Champions Cup or PRO14 celebratory images of 2018 but to a photo from May 2013 and Leinster's first win in the British & Irish Cup. The names start to roll off his tongue.

"There's James Tracy, 'Marshy' (Cathal Marsh), 'Benty' (Michael Bent). Jordi Murphy was captain that year. Aaron Dundon, 'Dippy' Dominic Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Fionn Carr, Dan Leavy. Noel Reid kicked a last-minute winner in extra-time against Newcastle in that game."

His eyes are then drawn to the image below.

"That was in Donnybrook a year later. Dippy was the captain that time. There's Darragh Fanning 'Fanj', Tracy again, 'Noelie' (Reid), Luke McGrath, Tadhg Furlong, Marshy again.

"In many ways it seems like only yesterday but so much has happened since then and you look at a lot of those faces and a lot of lads have moved on but thankfully there are a few of us still knocking around the place."

Jack Conan attempting to escape the clutches Toulouse’s Francois Cros during the semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Conan attempting to escape the clutches Toulouse’s Francois Cros during the semi-final. Photo: Sportsfile

Conan didn't feature in the 2013 final but he started as openside flanker in the 2014 decider. Of that match-day 23, only nine are still at the club.

That final win brought the curtain down on a frustrating season for Conan at the club.

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While he had made his senior debut away to Cardiff Blues in a man-of-the-match try-scoring performance, it was to be his only appearance as injuries took hold.

Since that debut season, Conan's stock has risen considerably and shows no signs of abating any time soon and he now has a further 85 caps to his name, plus 14 Ireland caps.

That's not to say it's been all plain sailing - which makes Saturday's Champions Cup final even sweeter for the Wicklow man.

"Last season I had that injury that kept me out of contention for a while and then I couldn't quite force my way back in to the starting 15.

"Fair play to Jordi too. He was playing great rugby and deserved his shot so I had to be patient and when you've experienced the downs, it makes it all the better when you do get a shot in a final like that and you can be on the pitch savouring those moments with your team-mates after the final whistle."

Iconic

The iconic image from that final is maybe of Conan, Scott Fardy and James Ryan chasing with all they have to put pressure on a late drop-goal attempt from Remi Tales. It worked as the kick sailed to the left and wide.

"Those few weeks were brilliant. Obviously winning the trophies but just everything around it and finals rugby and those performances and sharing those moments with the lads.

"It's nice to know that you helped contribute to some history and that you have left your mark on the club."

Tomorrow against Saracens he will get to leave his mark on a team and a foe that he has yet to face.

At the quarter-final stage last season Conan missed out through injury. As did his opposite number Billy Vunipola.

It's a match-up that everyone is talking about and one that the 26-year-old is relishing.

"Billy has been excellent for Saracens and for England. I think in that Munster game he had 24 or 25 possessions and only four of them were passes, so it shows how much work the man gets through and the physicality that he brings to the game.

"He is central to everything that they do but he's not just a big man. If you try to chop him low, he can step you, he has soft hands when he needs them. He really does have a lot to his game and we will all have to be on our guard."

It's been a long season but Conan has taken a different path to last year - is there more satisfaction in that?

"Possibly. Last season going unbeaten meant we had everything in our control and we had a say in how the season played out.

"We didn't have to chase anything. This season because of that loss away to Toulouse in Round 2 we lost that safety net very early and we had to have a different mindset from there on in.

"Once we managed to negotiate Bath in those back-to-backs in December though, it became clearer for us what we needed to do.

"Definitely from the Toulouse game in Round 5 in the RDS it was knock out rugby. It's been cup-final rugby really ever since.

"So yeah, maybe we have had to negotiate our path differently this season but I think you'd still prefer to win all your games."

As Saracens have done this term.

"I think in many ways they are the perfect foil for us as we are to them. Contrasting styles but both very good at what we do. They have the best defence in the Premiership.

"You saw what they did to Glasgow, to Munster, over 80 points scored against two teams that we know very well and that we know are very good.

"The names that they have like the Vunipolas (Mako and Billy), (Maro) Itoje, Jamie George, (George) Kruis.

"I think it's the biggest test we've had easily in the last two, three seasons."

But ultimately when all is said and done, it comes back to the wall in UCD. And a chance to create something special.

Objective

"Winning in Europe was our number-one objective at the start of the season.

"But from July 1 to May 11 a lot can happen so you break it all down and you set shorter goals and sometimes you have to reassess those goals.

"But here we are. In with a shot. But if we lose, you've nothing to show, so it's a pretty stark reality.

"But I look at that wall behind us and those that have led the way. Leo (Cullen), John Fogarty, Felipe (Contepomi), Girvan Dempsey and that first win in 2009... people who have had a massive influence on this team and these players and now we have a chance some 10 years later to add to that legacy and that would mean a lot to us."

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