'We wanted to make it difficult for lads to get a jersey back'
The wheel has turned full circle for Leinster back-rower who is ‘buzzing’ after his Ireland call-up, as he tells Marcus Ó Buachalla
It's simply good timing. Catching up with Will Connors only hours after he'd been named in Ireland head coach Andy Farrell's first training camp. And he's buzzing, to use his own word, and while he would be the first to acknowledge that the squad as named is still some way shy of a Six Nations squad, it is nonetheless a lovely pre-Christmas boost for the Leinster back-rower.
"It was funny because Scott Fardy came over to me and Max (Deegan) as we were walking off the training pitch and said, 'Congrats', but we hadn't a clue so he just said, 'Check your phones', and yeah my phone was hopping! It's deadly!
"Ah look, I just think back to this time last year. I was overwhelmed with college and exams. I was finding it hard to see the wood for the trees with regard to my injury and you know it was tough.
"When you are so consumed with an injury and lads are around you and they are flying along, it's difficult to stay focused on your rehab and your own progress. So to now be here 12 months later, loving my rugby, playing - touch wood - injury-free and just enjoying life and now to get this boost…I dunno. Like it wasn't on my radar at all. So yeah, I'm buzzing."
A quick step back to put it all into context. Connors injured his ACL in the pre-season friendly against Newcastle Falcons in August 2018 and it meant he had to sit out the majority of last season. He did make it back for two games towards the back end off the bench against Glasgow Warriors and an 80-minute run-out against this evening's opposition Ulster Rugby but that was it for his season's efforts in his first year as a senior player.
"It definitely gave me the chance to put my focus elsewhere and I put a lot of focus on college where I'm studying Computer and Data Science in UCD. So I deliberately took on more college but it wasn't easy. It was a tough year but look, I'm just loving being back now and looking forward now to Ulster and pulling on a Leinster jersey again."
To date this season he has pulled on the jersey on five occasions to add to the five caps he had already accumulated but his Glasgow performance two weeks ago made people sit up and take note. He made 25 tackles against Glasgow and missed none.
The game before that against Connacht he made 23 tackles and, again, missed none. He picked up the Guinness Man of the Match award in the Glasgow match and it felt like he had arrived. But Connors, still a young man at 23, feels it was a coming of age for the wider squad not just himself.
"That game was massive for us. All week we had looked back on previous games and they are extremely tough games and so many players referenced it but also younger lads.
"Conor O'Brien made his debut over there a few years ago and he spoke about the experience and just how physical a team they are and if you don't match that you get caught. In some ways in our heads it was about redemption.
"We've been caught there before and we could have been caught again but we weren't. We brought great intensity to the game and, look, it could have gone wrong. We were a bit shook at the start with how they came at us, then we pick up a yellow card but it was just hugely satisfying the way the group came together.
"We were able to re-assess where we were, what had happened and manage our way out of it. It was a game that will hopefully stand to this group massively in the coming years."
Despite the man of the match performance, Connors has had to sit out the last two weekends of European action. He has been the travelling extra man. So close and yet still waiting patiently for his Champions Cup debut. It will come but nothing changes for him and his mentality that has now catapulted him into the national conversation.
"When the World Cup was over and even before then we spoke quite a bit about what we wanted to do when the lads were away and what we wanted to do when the lads came back and one of the things we spoke about as a group was make it difficult for them to get a jersey back.
"And we have continued that mantra. Of course it's not easy sitting out, we all want to play, but we also know that if we keep performing in training and keep the standards high, we will get a shot and that's what is driving our standards every day.
"Everyone wants to be in that starting 15 or the extended 23 if not. But we can't all be in it so if you're not, you just have to keep the group mentality strong and drive on and yeah, work really hard to get the jersey on your own back for this week."
So back to this week and he will have the jersey on his back in the RDS this evening against Ulster and then he will head away to Abbotstown and join up with the rest of the 45-man Ireland squad. So who will be front of mind as he makes that trip for the first time?
"My parents obviously, Nick and Lelia. My dad has been my number one fan from day one but not just for rugby. He just said go and do what you want and he encouraged me then in whatever was the latest.
"Whether that was GAA or horse riding or rugby, whatever it was at that time he was right behind me. And then you look up from the pitch like I did in Scotstoun a few weeks ago and there they were, still there supporting me on a freezing night in Glasgow.
"And I think of coaches like Brett Igoe and Noel McNamara, two unbelievable men that I had in Clongowes Wood College. They, I suppose, nurtured the love of the game in me because I was interested and I liked it but they just kicked it on to another level. Plus they played a great brand of rugby.
"We used to use the Rudyard Kipling quote from 'The Jungle Book' quite a bit - "For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack" - and it always struck me and I still like it to this day and it mirrors the ethos we have in Leinster. Brothers working for each other."
Massive few weeks ahead for this pack and Connors is just happy to be back in the middle of it.