Will 'Porridge' Connors now delivering on his massive potential
Gifted backrow has overcome adversity to earn his starting place in a formidable Leinster XV
Will Connors: will make his full Champions Cup debut when he lines out against Saracens at the Aviva. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Thomas Joseph Crean was a boarder in Clongowes from 1889 to 1891 and went on to captain Ireland to their first Triple Crown and Home Nations in 1894, winning both again in 1896.
That year he also captained the Lions in two Tests in South Africa. He saved the life of a drowning student in the Dodder in 1891 and, after becoming a doctor and a soldier, in 1991 he won a Victoria Cross medal for valour shown in the face of the enemy during the Boer War when attending to wounded soldiers despite being wounded himself.
He also survived many wounds while fighting in the first World War and, after all that, died just before his 50th birthday from diabetes.
In Will Connors’ last season in Clongowes Wood, the coaches introduced a ‘Tom Crean Award’ after every game.
“Will was a regular recipient of that for leading the charge,” recalls his coach at the time, Noel McNamara.
“The feeling is that he’s coming to the party a little bit later than some other guys but I think it would be unfair to say he’s anything other than an outstanding schoolboy. Talk about the characteristics that are required to get to the top and he would certainly demonstrate a lot of those in terms of his capacity for work, his desire to continuously get better and his humility to recognise that he can get better. In all of those areas he would score very highly.”
Like Hugo Keenan then, Connors has come through the Leinster schools, sub-academy and full academy pathway, taking in stints with the Irish Under-20s and Sevens programme as well as UCD in the All-Ireland League. His career trajectory has also been delayed by injuries, and both players will make their Champions Cup debuts today.
While Keenan’s deserved opportunity is in part due to injuries to others, notably Dave Kearney and Adam Byrne, Connors has forced his way into the starting back-row despite the return to fitness of both Jack Conan and Dan Leavy among nine fully fit loose forwards in Leinster’s squad.
McNamara, who would coach Connors at Leinster and Ireland Schools levels as well as UCD and Leinster A, also taught Connors in first year, in Maths and PE, and in his Leaving Cert year, when he did Higher Level Maths.
“He worked hard on that side of things. I don’t think I ever had an issue with him. He had an Ad Astra Scholarship in UCD as well, like Garry Ringrose. It’s a scholarship awarded to one player every year in the rugby programme, and it’s for rugby and academics.”
Connors was introduced to rugby at North Kildare RFC by his father Nick, who was a noted show jumper in his time and worked in computers and technology. Nick and Lelia have never missed any of their son’s games, which Connors’ sister, Ashleigh and Edie, have both represented Ireland in show jumping.
Connors took to rugby with relish and although the family home in Donadea in Kildare is only a few miles from Clongowes, he insisted on being a boarder.
It was at Clongowes that Connors’ penchant for bringing microwaveable oats into the dining room also earned him the nickname ‘Porridge’, which endures in the Leinster set-up to this day.
“Relentless is probably the word I would use,” says McNamara of the boy Connors. “While he was never in the leadership positions at any stage he was invariably the heartbeat of the team. He just had insatiable appetite for work, be it defence, carrying or off the ball running.”
Back in 2015 Mathew Rice, who had been coached by Brian McLoughlin, aka the Brigadier of the Breakdown, joined the Clongowes coaching ticket and discovered an old rucking net in the school’s grounds, which assuredly dated back to Vinny Murray’s time at Clongowes in the late 90s and early 2000s.
“It had lain idle for quite a while, and there was rust on it,” recalls McNamara. “They did a huge amount of rucking and tackling drills under that rucking net. It’s obviously something that Will has perfected over time.”
After two years on the Clongowes JCT team, Connors played a full three years on their senior cup team.
Blackrock and Clongowes met in the Cup final in 2014, when the former retained their crown with a very strong team led by Nick Timoney and featuring Joey Carbery. The following year, Clongowes surprised a St Michael’s team captained by James Ryan in the quarter-finals.
“I think we defended 36 phases in the last passage of play,” remembers McNamara, “and if Will didn’t make half the tackles he went pretty to close it.”
Alas, Connors injured his knee in that game and a patched-up Clongowes lost to Belvedere in the semi-finals.
Connors was also the blindside flanker on the Irish Schools team which reached the final of the FIRA tournament.
“Will was an outstanding player on that team, albeit we used to have a work-rate index for the players and he could never catch James,” recalls McNamara. “But it’s no mean feat to be second to James Ryan in anything, and that team also included Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale.”
Connors progressed into the Leinster academy for two years after one season working with Dave Fagan in the sub academy.
Having been a regular in the 2016 Under-20 Six Nations, Connors suffered a bad ankle injury in a preparatory game in Donnybrook before the squad went to the Under-20 World Cup in Manchester, where they would beat New Zealand en route to reaching the final.
Connors returned to break the mould in his first year with UCD when starting their semi-final defeat by Clontarf, before playing for the Ireland Sevens in the 2017-18 season.
A run of three successive starts in February 2018 was cruelly curtailed by a hamstring injury but, worse still, Connors ruptured his ACL in the final pre-season game of 2018-19, which effectively put paid to his entire season.
However, with a full pre-season and injury free, Connors played ten Pro14 games before lockdown. A haul of 48 tackles in 140 minutes in the wins over Connacht and Glasgow prompted Andy Farrell to include Connors in his first 45-man squad for the so-called ‘stock-take’ last December.
After Connors backed that up with 23 tackles (and none missed) in the win away to Munster over Christmas he was retained in the Six Nations squad, and word was that Farrell was set to give him his Test debut against Italy before lockdown.
Connors used the lockdown to complete his four-year degree in Computer Science at UCD and has been involved in all four of Leinster’s games since the resumption, bringing his tackle count in 14 games (including three off the bench) to 195, with just 11 missed, for a success rate of 95 per cent.
But it’s not just the volume or accuracy of his tackles which are impressive, it’s his line speed, work-rate and communication, especially in defence, which sets him apart.
Sean O’Brien has seen the growth in his one-time fellow Leinster back-rower.
“When he first came into the set-up there was a lot of chat around about him being a really good rugby player, a very good tackler, and a really nice, if tough, young fella. He is a really good guy Will; a lovely manner about him and he fits in really well. He is very intelligent and he has a bit about him for sure. I remember thinking: ‘I can’t wait for this lad to fill out and then see what he’s made of.’ He’s done that now.
“His work-rate is phenomenal and his chop-tackling is outrageous to be honest. He has such a good technique and can get over the ball.
“Will is bigger than people think,” adds O’Brien of the 6ft 5in flanker. “He’s got a few strengths to his bow. He’s a good line-out operator. Carrying is something he probably needs to work on in the next while but he’s certainly put his hand up in the last few weeks.
“He’s probably matured a little bit. He’s come into himself and he’s learned an awful lot in the last few seasons. He’s had a really good pre-season and also a good run of games. He’s fit and he knows his place in the team.
“He just looks so comfortable out there and he’s hitting everything behind the gain line too, which is great. You have him, Josh [(van der Flier], Jack [Conan] and Caelan [Doris] all leading Leinster’s line speed. It’s a nice thing to have when they’re all at it. While he’s not a young fella, he’s not an old fella either, and there’s lots and lots of rugby in him,” notes O’Brien.
Not every player travels smoothly and swiftly from talented underage player to senior international, ala Ryan, Porter and Stockdale. In fact, they’re in the minority.
Some, like Connors, have to negotiate a few road bumps along the way and bide their time. But he’s arrived now.