Could this finally be Jack Conan’s time for Leinster and Ireland?
Number eight has had bad luck with injuries and timing but can now own the jersey again
Jack Conan celebrates Leinster’s Pro14 final win over Munster in March. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Perhaps, finally, this is Jack Conan’s time. At 28, he comes into Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final with his nightmarish 2019-20 season behind him and on the back of a try-scoring return to the Ireland team and a try-scoring man of the match display in Leinster’s Pro14 final win over Munster.
And a Jack Conan on top of his game is a boon for any team.
If it is time, it’s not before time. Ankle and foot injuries, along with a fractured bone in his wrist, stymied his progress at various junctures, and in the ultra competitive world of Leinster and Irish loose forwards, a player can ill-afford setbacks.
Although he made his Ireland debut as far back as August 2015 in a World Cup warm-up game against Scotland, Conan has only added another 19 since then. Of his 13 starts, only three have been in the Six Nations.
It’s also been his misfortune that for much of his career the two resident Irish number 8s, Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander, were relatively indestructible.
In 10 seasons between 2008 and the fateful back injury which forced him out of the final 2017 game against England, Heaslip missed only three Six Nations games, and also started all 10 of Ireland’s games at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.
In the last six seasons, Stander has missed only two of Ireland’s 30 Six Nations games, as initially he played at flanker alongside Heaslip for two seasons.
After breaking into the Leinster team at the start of the 2014-15 campaign, Conan quickly established himself as Heaslip’s understudy and occasional backrow teammate at blindside for over two and a half seasons.
Nobody, therefore, has a better appreciation or understanding of Conan’s abilities than Heaslip, a Test centurion and two-time Lions tourist who is arguably Ireland’s greatest 8 of them all.
“Jack had oodles of talent, oodles of athletic ability,” says Heaslip. “My take on all these talented young backrowers coming through, for a lot of them, they were always the big kid. Really athletically gifted so it was easy for them at underage rugby and something that catches them off guard as they come out of Under-20s is that everyone’s big and the players who’ve been around a while are really smart too.
“I’m not talking about book smart now, because that’s a challenge for some of them, but footballing smart because they have the experience, the pace of a game, what’s expected of you as a player, consistently applying yourself to get better and consistently performing.
“Another thing is that a lot of players have that breakout season but what happens when they get the knockback, or it doesn’t accelerate as quickly as they want it to? Because they’re not all going to be James Ryan.”
What’s more, Conan had to muscle his way into a retinue of backrowers including Heaslip, Seán O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Kevin McLaughlin and Dominic Ryan.
It was a game he took by the neck
“You could see that while athletically gifted, he probably needed a bit more exposure at that top level,” says Heaslip. “So when he was six he got to do what he does. He carries the ball. For such a big man he can really move, and he’s got such good feet, but at the time he lacked consistency of performance in a game and over multiple games at top level.
“But then he started getting that and the injury during the World Cup was very unfortunate because it was just starting to come together for him.”
Making his mark
Just two weeks after Heaslip was forced out of that England game in 2017 Conan quickly became Leinster’s de facto number 8, making his mark in a European quarter-final at home to Wasps.
“He just absolutely blew it wide open,” says Heaslip, who was watching from the Aviva Stadium stands. “It was a game he took by the neck.”
It’s been mostly Conan’s jersey save for injury interruptions ever since. In the glorious 2017-18 season, when Leinster reclaimed their European crown in winning the double, Conan had started all the pool games before suffering a medial ligament injury in a defeat at home by the Ospreys a week before the quarter-final win over Saracens.
Jordi Murphy retained the number eight jersey in the semi-final against the Scarlets and the final against Racing in Bilbao, although Conan did return to play the final quarters off the bench. Conan was also restored for the Pro14 semi-final and final wins over Munster, scoring Leinster’s only try and making 19 tackles, and the Scarlets.
They’ve very different styles and different types of games I think
Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt did start Conan against Italy in Rome in the second leg of the 2018 Grand Slam, with Stander on the bench, and he also contributed off the bench in the win over Wales, before Jordi Murphy was restored to the bench for the last two games against Scotland and England.
In the two Six Nations games Stander actually missed, with a fractured cheekbone and eye socket which would have sidelined other players longer, Conan replaced him for the 2019 win over Scotland in Murrayfield, but promptly missed the trek to Rome with a quad strain.
Conan was recalled to the bench for the final two games against France and Wales, scoring a try after replacing Josh van Der Flier at the end of the first quarter in the win over France.
Hence, if that 2015 World Cup came a little too soon for him at 23, when Heaslip, Seán O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy and Chris Henry were the chosen backrowers, at 27 he should have been well primed four years on in Japan.
Conan started both of the warm-up wins over Wales and played an hour off the bench in the opening match against Scotland, first as a temporary replacement for van der Flier and then for the injured O’Mahony in the 25th minute. His 14 tackles caught the eye and he looked set for a big tournament.
But he had been carrying a foot injury since the previous May and when a teammate stood on it in training, an operation was required. His World Cup was over barely after it started.
“Potentially, I don’t know, he probably felt the pressure to push it as far as he could to get himself right for a World Cup,” says Heaslip.
It was, Conan has since admitted, “a bit of a miserable road over the last few months”, and was elongated by the pandemic to 11 months. Even after regaining his place at number 8 for Leinster’s post-lockdown wins over Munster, the Pro14 final win over Ulster and the Euro quarter-final against Saracens, a neck injury in November set him back again.
Time waits for no man and while Conan had been away along came the prodigiously talented and voraciously hard-working Caelan Doris, who began to establish himself as not only Leinster’s number 8 but Ireland’s as well during the past year.
“Caelan became the go-to number 8,” says Heaslip. “I wouldn’t want to be the decision-maker going forward. Caelan is outstanding as well, so who do you play at 6 and 8 in Leinster with the two of them? What do you do there?” asks Heaslip, himself unsure. “They’ve very different styles and different types of games I think.”
The Leinster think tank are seemingly, like Heaslip, of a mind to accommodate both of them. When both were fit simultaneously immediately after the resumption last August, Doris switched to 6 and Conan was at 8 for the two games against Munster, the final against Ulster and the Saracens game.
By Conan’s own admission, he’s had a tendency to drift in and out of games, something which probably wouldn’t always have appealed to Schmidt, although he’s worked hard to up his numbers, especially in defence. Techncially, according to Heaslip, Conan is a good defender.
“Jack makes very good defensive reads, quite smart and impactful, because he’s such good footwork for a big man to get himself into the right place, and he’s strong. It’s rare that he’s caught out and he could cut you in two.
“He’s very confident and in fairness Stuart (Lancaster) gave him a lot of rope in this. Stuart’s system benefitted a player like Jack, someone who likes to get off the line and in your face and hit.
“On the flip side, within Stuart’s attack system, it’s free-flowing, keep the ball alive, always moving the point of contact, looking for his ball carriers to get on the ball.”
World Cup cycle
Could this be his time?
“Jack probably has one World Cup cycle left to own it. You always got the sense that he wanted it to happen quicker and that’s fine, because you’re the man when you’re in the underage system coming through.
“It happens to pretty much everyone when they come to senior rugby, and that’s a test of your character,” says Heaslip, save for exceptions such as Ryan of course.
“And that’s just your club. Then there’s getting a cap, which is amazing, or getting a few caps, and then getting consistency of caps. Timing and luck are half the gig, and I would love to see Jack get a run.
“But he’s got loads of competition coming through, so he consistently has to perform both for Leinster and Ireland for the next few years, and that’s a challenge mentally as well as physically for anyone. But he has the ability to do it.”
Indeed, it was the withdrawal of Doris at the start of this year’s Six Nations and then O’Mahony’s suspension after his red card against Wales which opened a doorway back into the squad.
Even so, it was a leap of faith by Andy Farrell and his assistants, as it had been by Leinster’s coaching ticket, to restore Conan to the bench for the wins over Italy and Scotland, and then to start against England.
“By my own standards when I got back playing in August I wasn’t at the races or at the standard I needed to be at for Leinster or Ireland,” Conan admitted with disarming but typical candour after the Rome game.
“I appreciate the opportunity and faith the Leinster coaches had in me. They gave me a few run outs to get back but I picked up a few more niggles and it wasn’t until the last two or three weeks that I felt like I was back to where I was.”
Given all Conan has gone through too, there can be no more motivated player around.
“You’ve seen him get that close to the mountain and then have it taken away to a degree with the injury,” says Heaslip, “and now you can see that fire in him. He just wants to get on the ball and play his game, and he’s being empowered by Leinster to do that and it looks like Ireland are giving him that space as well. That’s where players like him thrive.”
You wouldn’t begrudge him some good fortune.