Star pupil Conway still learning trade
Former Blackrock flier hungry to prove class at Munster, writes Cian Tracey
Grabbing the headlines in Leinster schools rugby is something that Andrew Conway grew accustomed to. Two Junior Cup medals (2006 and '07) as well as Senior Cup honours ('09) with Blackrock College drew plenty of admirers and allowed the winger to make the apparent seamless step from schools rugby to the Leinster Academy.
Winning his first medal in 2006 didn't come all that easy, though, as Conway himself explains.
"I couldn't break into the starting team for the first few rounds but I managed to scrape into the side for the final, which was a relief," he recalls.
From the moment that he forced his way into that side, though, he never looked back.
"I was underage in fourth year so I got a chance to play again. We ended up winning the Junior Cup back-to-back, which was brilliant," he says.
"That one probably meant more to me because I was involved in the team the whole time. I had more of a senior role, with most of the other lads being the year behind me."
That extra year of playing Junior Cup rugby was a huge advantage and really helped his development. By the time Senior Cup came along, Conway had become almost a household name of the schools scene.
A year after winning his second Junior Cup medal, Conway's focus immediately changed to the biggest schools prize of all.
"Getting two Junior Cup medals was great, but the Senior Cup is the one you really want," he says.
Blackrock went on to lose the final in a replay against Clongowes, which was something that he and his team-mates weren't used to. But Conway maintains that the defeat made them collectively stronger and, sure enough, his school were Leinster champions a year later in 2009.
Coached by Frank Macken, father of Leinster centre Brendan, the Blackrock side was littered with some of the country's most exciting young talents.
"Winning the Senior Cup in 2009 would still be in my top three highlights of my career so far," Conway says, still bursting with pride.
"Playing with the same lads from the age of 10 upwards made it more special. The likes of Jordi Murphy who captained the side – I played with him since third class in school. We also had players like Brendan Macken, Denis Buckley and Dave Heffernan (both now with Connacht)."
Rugby at an underage level doesn't come much more intense than in Senior Cup year, especially at Leinster's most successful school.
"I never really felt pressure because of how many Senior Cups Blackrock had previously won. It was my own will to win," he insists.
"Players wanted to do well for themselves because we grew up playing together. The rivalry in Leinster is so big that you'll do everything you can to be the best."
That will to win has seen schools rugby scale new heights in terms of the levels of coaching and player development in recent years. And for Blackrock, there was never a missed opportunity to fit extra training into what was an already packed schedule.
"We used to have little training sessions at lunchtime even just for 15 minutes. We trained most days and then had to get to study as well.
"The school started bringing in more weights training and lads from Leinster used to come in and teach us how to do the drills properly.
"With the way the professional game is gone, schools want to get as much of an edge as possible and get the younger lads on board early. That really opened my eyes as to what to expect from the Leinster Academy."
Having his eyes opened to what to expect from an academy is one thing, but to be catapulted into a Pro12 game a mere eight months after finishing school is another matter entirely.
"I was as surprised as anyone to get the call. I was in the academy at the time and I was asked to come and train. I thought I was going to be playing on the second team and be holding a few tackle bags," he says.
"When I went in, Michael Cheika told me he was happy with how I was going in the U-20s Six Nations and he said he'd give me a run."
Conway, the joint highest try scorer at the Junior World Championship, made his full debut replacing Shane Horgan against the Scarlets at the RDS, and he credits the former Ireland and Lions winger for giving him plenty of guidance.
Having made the move south to Munster last year, Conway's career in a red jersey has yet to really take off. The bitter rivalry that exists between the two provinces was irrelevant for a Dublin-born player who says he always had a soft spot for Munster.
"Myself and my dad used to travel to the big away European games so I always had a fondness. We had a family friend who was a huge fan so we used to go with him. I went down to Limerick when I left school to discuss joining the Munster Academy. I stayed in touch with the lads who I played with in the Irish U-20s, which made the transition much easier."
Conway is yet to win a senior Irish cap. He was selected as part of the Emerging Ireland side that travelled to Georgia last summer but a calf injury ruled him out of the tour.
Injuries have also halted his Munster career to date, but now that he's back fully fit, he is looking forward to putting all of that behind him.
"I haven't really hit the ground running. I've picked up a few niggly injuries. I'm still looking for that one game where I can really feel like I've settled in," he says.
"It's been frustrating. It's tough to watch the lads play when you're at a new club and trying to make an impression. I'd like to think Munster fans haven't seen the best of me yet."
It is not only Munster fans who are yet to see the best of Conway, but Irish fans too.
Those who have tracked his progress will be fully aware of just how talented he is.
Now is the time for him to rediscover the kind of form that saw him become a schools star and live up to the undoubted potential that he has.