Andrew Conway’s first full Six Nations start is long overdue – and well deserved

Ireland’s leading World Cup try-scorer has seen patience pay off with chance against the Scots

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey look ahead to Ireland's first match of the 2020 Six Nations against Scotland and predict a change in style of play under new head coach Andy Farrell.

 

However impatient Andrew Conway might understandably have been when his professional career did not accelerate as quickly as was expected, he’s long since learned that patience is a virtue. For someone who seemed destined for a meteoric rise rather than a gradual one, and has had to work for everything, it must make opportunities like Saturday’s all the more rewarding.

If ever a player was worthy of an overdue full Six Nations debut, it’s the 28-year-old. Talk about deserved. He was Ireland’s leading try scorer in the World Cup, scoring in each of his three games, but still didn’t feature against New Zealand in the quarter-final.

He’s long since learned to be sanguine about such things.

“I’d been in the squad long enough under Joe to know how he selected,” said Conway this week. “It was always going to be a tough ask to get in when the lads are fit. I don’t think that’s coming from a negative thought process. That was just a reality and it proved to be right. I don’t necessarily think it was the wrong decision, it was just the way he approached selection.”

But finally, three years after his test debut, Conway starts against the Scots on Saturday, although he maintains it doesn’t feel especially different from any of his previous 11 starts. Aside an aside, in his 18 tests, Ireland have won 17 of them.

Such a wait would have seemed unlikely when he was the star turn and an ever-present at full-back in Ireland’s Under-20 Six Nations title-winning team all of a decade ago. In 10 games at 2010 and 2011 IRB World Under-20 Championships, shifting to the wing for the latter, he scored 10 tries, a record matched only by New Zealand’s Zac Guildford. All told, Conway scored 14 tries in 17 Under-20 matches.

Blood ties

Although a Dublin boy who went to Blackrock College, Conway has always had strong blood ties with Munster, through his grandfather and uncles, one of whom is the ex-Munster and Irish A hooker Mark McDermott. Indeed, he even supported Munster as well as Leinster in his youth, wearing a red jersey at the 2006 Heineken Cup final alongside his dad.

Andrew Conway playing for Blackrock against Gonzaga in the Leinster Schools Junior Cup final at Donnybrook in March 2006. Photograph: Eric Luke
Andrew Conway playing for Blackrock against Gonzaga in the Leinster Schools Junior Cup final at Donnybrook in March 2006. Photograph: Eric Luke

So when Munster offered him a full-time contract on leaving school, Leinster felt compelled to do likewise, meaning that – like Luke Fitzgerald – Conway skipped the academy set-up. But it did not work out as well. Injuries plagued his first and third seasons in Leinster, and although his fourth was by far his most productive, starting 16 of 23 games and scoring five tries, he made only one appearance in the Heineken Cup and rarely played alongside the likes of Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll.

So he sought pastures new and, coveted by Stade Français, even visited their set-up in Paris. Thankfully, in a sliding doors moment, he finally joined Munster instead.

Truly jet-heeled and an exceptional finisher, one of the problems with being such a free-scoring full-back-cum-winger on all-conquering Blackrock College Junior and Senior Cup-winning teams is that other aspects of his game had not been tested or developed.

By his own admission, Conway has worked to turn previous weaknesses – ie under the high ball – into strengths. He is an avid reader of sports psychology books, is strong on his mental preparation for games, has worked so diligently on his body after those early years that, touch wood, he has become quite durable and – all the more so with the advent of Schmidt as Irish coach – has worked diligently on the details within his game.

Knocked out

For example, Conway’s tackle technique was flawed, so much so that at times he ended up hurting himself, once being knocked out from putting his head in the wrong place.

Ala Gordon D’Arcy, his counter-attacking ways in his Leinster days were probably down to the lack of a kicking game, but at Munster he worked on this tirelessly as well. This in turn improved his decision-making in the backfield.

An avid student of the game, Conway now regularly writes entries into a notebook almost every week to maintain this constant desire for self-improvement. No less than Keith Earls, young players at Munster are known to seek his advice, and one ventures Conway’s career story could be an example for Joey Carbery.

Conway’s volume of games increased in 2014-15, when becoming Munster’s right-winger, and more so over the next two seasons when mostly at full-back. In 2016-17, Conway began tearing it up as he scored 11 tries in 25 games, and he’s never looked back.

He made a composed Irish debut in the Six Nations that season as a half-time replacement for Earls, when Ireland denied England a second successive Grand Slam, although he’s been a tad unlucky along the way.

After featuring prominently on the 2017 tour to Japan and the autumn series later that year, scoring his first test try in the win over South Africa, a heavy workload may have contributed to the knee injury he suffered against Castres in round six of the Heineken Cup, and which ruled him out of the 2018 Six Nations.

He returned in style only two months later with that sensational match-winning try in the quarter-final against Toulon and, for years now, he has consistently delivered when Munster have needed him to do so.

Even then, however, in completing a razor-sharp finish in the early stages of the series-levelling win in Melbourne, Conway sustained a hip injury which sidelined him for the third test. Although scoring a hat-trick against the USA in November 2018, Conway was restricted to two replacement cameos in last season’s Six Nations.

Relative scraps

But, taking confidence from his form from the World Cup, Conway made his return to Munster colours with a match-winning 40-metre finish against Ulster from JJ Hanrahan’s inside pass. Although living off relative scraps, he scored in both Racing games and has forced his way in on merit now.

We’re only a week into working together so there’s a lot to learn and hopefully the relationship will blossom

Now in his 11th season as a professional, Conway remains a sponge, and he’s clearly been energised by the arrival of Stephen Larkham at Munster and now Mike Catt as Ireland’s new attack coach. He says the similarities between the two have been very helpful.

“Yeah, brilliant,” he says of Catt’s initial influence, before revealing: “We’re only a week into working together so there’s a lot to learn and hopefully the relationship will blossom, but one big thing he’s brought in is scanning, something that we’re probably as Irish rugby players not very good at. We tend to focus on the ball, not look up and see what’s in front of us.

“With the Kiwis especially, having played with a few of them, Francis Saili was especially good at it a few years ago. I remember playing outside him and he used to be watching what the defence was doing as the ball was coming, then just take a little glance in and then watch again,” said Conway, motioning his eyes right, left, right and back again.

“So having the ability to do that, you actually have an understanding of what the defence is doing, as opposed to, ‘right, the defence is there’ and then I’m looking in at the ball and then you don’t know what the defence is doing and they’re coming hard.

If you think you know everything, then that’s when you start declining, but I certainly don’t think that

“You have a bit of a feel for it but if you’re able to look and look and have that feel for it, which takes a while, but that’s something we’re working on: timing onto the ball, not going too quick onto the ball and cutting off our other options. There’s loads of things. We’re only dipping the toe in at the moment to Catty’s ideas, but they’ve been the two big standouts where I feel we can see big improvements early.”

New tricks

While he’s no old dog yet, Conway believes no player is too old to learn new tricks.

“Ah, if he’s willing to learn and think he is, yeah, I think so. I think the problem with that saying is that if you’re experienced enough and you’ve been there and done that, it’s probably an unwillingness to learn new tricks. 

“I think you can learn new tricks until the day you die, so if you’ve got a growing mindset you’re always looking to evolve. If you think you know everything, then that’s when you start declining, but I certainly don’t think that.

“I’m not stupid enough to think anyone knows everything, so I’m more than happy to learn off Mike Catt, Steve Larkham, they’ve all got different ideas. if you’re willing to listen and ask questions and be inquisitive and be open, then you’ll always develop, you’ll always find a way to get better.”

Asked how long does it take for new skills to become instinctive, he responds by saying “good question”, and then admits: “I don’t know the answer to that. I suppose it is different for everyone isn’t it?”

Thoughtful and articulate, he continues by freely admitting to his own weakness under the high ball when starting out on his professional career.

“I think high balls were the worst thing in my game when I first came out of school. Isa Nacewa used to catch them for me back in the early days at Leinster. I just couldn’t. It’s just timing and repetition.

“It’s not even repetition. We did a few extras after training there and we were talking about what percentage we will go at. We were discussing that we would go at 100, not killing each other, but at 100 per cent intensity.

“There is no point really in doing anything outside of that because whenever you play the game, it’s at that intensity.

We have still got similar ideas of how we want to play the game. We’re just tweaking it a little bit

“So I suppose it is different for each person, but if you are really nailed on in your process after the session or whatever, that’s when you will acquire it easier than kind of chilling and hoping it will come to fruition.”

How much change we see from this Irish team remains to be seen.

“We will see on Saturday, won’t we?” says Conway. “We are not trying to change everything in one week. We know that that’s not possible. We have still got a similar calling system. We have still got similar ideas of how we want to play the game. We’re just tweaking it a little bit. We are not coming in saying: ‘Right lads, old regime out, new regime in. We want this.’ That’s not going to work, because we need to climb into Saturday from minute one.

 “So if we went down that route [changing everything], there is going to be lads second-guessing themselves, not knowing calls, not knowing what the other person is thinking. We are still on the same road, we are just taking a few different routes down it.”

 A bit like Conway himself.

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