Slow-burning talent Andrew Conway primed to explode in Australia
Andrew Conway has endured many setbacks but now he looks ready to deliver on his promise
On the summer tour of US and Japan a year ago Andrew Conway did his share of the media duties, and left us in no doubt that the move to Munster was the best thing that ever happened to him. A schoolboy star in his own eyes as well as others, his Leinster career had not delivered the way anyone expected. So he bit the bullet and went south to Munster, whom he had always admired from the days they were ripping it up, when Leinster couldn't tear open a wet paper bag.
If life in blue had been spent mostly on the outside - 43 games in four seasons - then the switch to red took a while to catch on too. But as he took a different approach to how he prepared then the pieces started to fit.
"It made me reflect deeply on what I needed to do," he said last summer. "And I'd go over what I thought was something that would be where I'd get my edge, and probably put in a bit more mental preparation for things - having a holistic thought process into the game, not just rocking up in training and playing a match."
He dipped into the same well when it came to dealing constructively with setbacks. Last year for example, at last, he won his first cap as a 25 year-old having made his Leinster debut seven years earlier. Having got out of the blocks against England in the Six Nations he then went to US and Japan in June, and looked like a senior player. Come November, Conway was featuring in all three November Tests. It was all coming together nicely.
Roll on to the opening of the Six Nations and on the Tuesday of Test week, against France, he developed a knee issue that cost him a spot on the bench. It was a fiddly cartilage thing, enough to give him problems stepping and decelerating in certain positions, but not enough to raise a red flag as something serious. So instead of taking the medium-term view, and giving up four or five weeks to get back in the saddle for weeks six and seven, he kept trying. And falling. Which left him watching others in the space meant for him.
"Like, I've got to a point now where if you're watching guys and you're jealous - and jealousy is natural . . . but if you're kind of like with a chip on your shoulder about it it's no good to you or to anyone," he says. "You've just got to enjoy what the lads' success was and then be a part of it. I'm back now being part of a Grand Slam team. That's good for me and good for the team, d'ya get me?
"But I do know that guys struggle with that when they're not selected, or injured, and it's a tough pill to swallow. But I think the more you can actually get past that and see the bigger picture the more you can see that a positive mindset can only be a good thing for you, and not wish poorly on a fella who's got your position because you're not there. For me that's not the right way to think."
This runs counter to the laser-like intensity athletes use to get to the start line in the first place. But surely if minimising stress has a positive effect on your physical health, this positivity can help with healing the injury too?
"It didn't help with this knee because the knee wouldn't fuck off! I know what you mean - I think that just in long term it's . . . I talked to Earlsy (Keith Earls) about it and a few other guys. Earlsy missed out on Chicago and he could have been, 'Oh I'm so unlucky here'. But right, you're missing a game; you're missing a block; don't let that give you a hangover into the next block.
"Then if you look on the other side of things, look at a guy who's had to retire, or Chris Farrell who had a season-ending injury. Those things make you go: 'Okay I'm not in the worst position.' It's just your perspective on things."
That it paid off was illustrated beautifully, in bizarre circumstances. Conway's first game back after that knee injury was the Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulon. The plan was for 40-50 minutes. But Simon Zebo was gone before the first quarter was out, and with him went Conway's chance of getting off before his lungs started screaming at him.
In keeping with the theme, the only reason he was in position to launch the sub-nine second, game-changing score, slaloming through the Toulon defence, was because he had temporarily shifted out of full-back to catch his breath after being emptied a few minutes earlier.
"(Josua) Tuisova had smashed me and my ribs were hanging off me and I was like, '(Alex) Wootton, would you go into full-back? I'm dying here!' I can't remember what happened before but that's why I was on the wing. It's instinct really, there's no time to think. You see the ball coming and you're thinking: 'It'll will probably go out, I'll stand here.' It mightn't, and most of the time it does - sometimes it doesn't. And it just looks a bit more dramatic because the hands were over the head.
"Again, you're just looking at it and it's going - you might see it and you might not. Once the ball is in your hand then you look at what's in front of you, but it happens like that [clicks fingers]. It just goes."
It came close to bringing him the try of the season. He was eclipsed on that front by Tadhg Beirne, along with Joey Carbery, another Leinster man about to become a Munster man next season.
"He (Carbery) is one of the most exciting players in Ireland, if not Europe," Conway says. "You saw what he did when he came on during the (Pro14) final. That's what he can do and that's what he does out there (on the training pitch). He embarrasses people. He's got unbelievable talent and he works very hard and he's been in that Leinster environment with players who work unbelievably hard. You see guys like Dan Leavy, James Ryan. You have to drag them off the pitch, dragging them out of the gym. We're (in Munster) a small bit behind them in terms of execution and quality at the moment but he's definitely going to add to that."
There won't be a lot known in Australia about any of the new crew. There never is. So this is a perfect opportunity to make a point about how things have changed. Conway has no clue about the awfulness of Ireland's record Down Under. He is utterly unfazed that since 1979 it's a 0/10 win/loss relationship.
"Really, yeah? I didn't know that. That shows what a tough place it is to go. They're playing . . . I know South Africa are going through a rough period . . . but they're playing the New Zealands, Argentinas and South Africas consistently and that stands to you. When they come up here for tours in November that kind of flips, that's their end of season. It's the last few games of their year. It's tough. That's the challenge it is, it's the end of our season and there are bodies that are sore but I'm sure that's why there's a squad selected and a team selected for specific games to counteract that and bring in freshness, bring in lads who are eager. I know from the Munster side of things, it hurts when you're watching Leinster winning all these trophies and it gives you that added bit of extra motivation.
"You're really unbelievably hungry coming in to enjoy success and join that core group of Leinster lads and breed success with Ireland. So it's definitely going to be tough down there. We don't think we're going down because we won a Grand Slam and we'll win a Test series 3-0 and it's going to be handy enough. We're preparing to go and play a Tier 1, top three nation in the world in their backyard."
Conway has never been Down Under, and can't wait. That he flew on the Thursday plane - the logistics of bringing a group of 32 players plus half that again in support staff meant a Thursday/Friday stagger - would suggest he's in the group who most need an extra day to recover from the journey. So a spot in the match day squad in the first Test on Saturday is within reach. He will admit to no more than being hopeful. But he's absolutely clear on what is required.
"We need to drive it on - we can't go down to Australia and have a poor tour, poor performance off the back of what the lads have done in the last 12 months. Jason Cowman, the strength and conditioning coach - he plays a big role - had a meeting with us yesterday and he said this tour is all about getting better every day. That's all you have to do: every day you get better, you compete with the lads in your position, in the gym, out on the pitch, and then we compete with Australia. It's incredibly sharp in here."
Eight years after bursting onto the Leinster scene, Andrew Conway is answering his country's call on a Tier 1 tour of duty.
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