Jack Conan makes his Six Nations debut today. At 25, he knows he's not exactly an overnight sensation. Coming from the backrow logjam in Leinster, never mind Ireland, he's had to overcome his share of injuries, work hard for this opportunity and meet the exacting standards set for him and all others by Joe Schmidt.
Conan is a very good rugby player, and a very good talker. Chatty and self-effacing, he’s not averse to airing the faults in his game, or indeed his ambitions. Sometimes, he admits, he may say too much.
“Oh God, I’ve come out with some terrible lines over the years. What is it? I said something stupid a few years ago about getting juggling balls for Christmas. I think it was in the paper the next day as ‘Conan the Juggler’ or something like that. Shocking. I got abuse from my mates for weeks about it. I get notions in my head sometimes when I’m doing interviews.”
One that regularly crops up is from last August.
“I think my time of being patient is over,” he said. “Now it’s time to play and perform in those big games.”
He has less regrets about this one.
“Yea, okay, that was probably a bit premature, but you have to back yourself.”
That Schmidt has picked him to start today is evidence aplenty that Conan has brought better tackle entry and more impact hits to augment his undoubted ball-carrying ability.
"In the Six Nations there is no room for error"
“What’s visible with Jack is his ability to accelerate and carry the ball,” said the head coach, “but I think on the other side of the ball he’s been bringing a really physical side to his defence. Obviously his ability to transfer the ball through the contact and before the contact is another impressive thing. His lineout work has been continually improving as well. It’s a whole ambit of things that he can bring to the party.”
It’s the reward for additional work and a recognition from the player himself of the step up to Test level, all the more so in the Six Nations. Watching events in Paris last Saturday from his home underlined the point.
“In the Six Nations there is no room for error. Defensively, we were so on the money against France and one blip, one mistake, and we had to go through 41 phases three minutes beyond 80 minutes to get it back.”
“That just shows you that it’s not good enough to be on the money for 79 minutes, because in one split second the game is flipped on its head. Your detail has to be spot on. That’s the standard driven in training by Joe, the other coaches and the senior players.”
Another area of improvement demanded by Schmidt is one Conan has admitted to, namely his concentration.
“You don’t always have to be present in a game but you need to make sure that you’re ready to win the moments that are coming your way, to get back into the defensive line to see the picture and get off the line. Everybody is going to lose a few moments but when you have, snap back into it and be next-job focussed.”
The concentration lapses date back to his days with St Gerard’s, where the coaches were always on his case about this. Physically big from an early age, he says he often had things his own way, especially when carrying.
“You’re never the full article coming out of school, but I had so much range to improve myself as an athlete and as a rugby player. It’s a dose of reality when you realise you’re not as great as you thought you were,” he admits, laughing.
There was little rugby in the bloodline. His dad, Edward, who is a builder, played a little schools rugby in Belvedere College, before a motorbike accident at 19 did for any sports.
The same for his older brother, Robert. “It wasn’t for him. He plays Gaelic football for Kilmacanogue. I’m the only one on either side of the family that played rugby. Even my younger brother Harry had no real interest; just played socially.” He also has a twin sister, Emily.
His mum, Ann, played basketball and he credits her for “driving me around the country for years, whether it was for rugby, Gaelic football, soccer, tennis, swimming or whatever. She’s always been my number one supporter. Before every single game she sends me the same text, ‘Good luck, work hard’ and I’d be waiting for it now. The same with my girlfriend Ali. I’m almost superstitious about it.”
He grew up “a stone’s throw” from St Gerard’s, and hence was always punctual. “Ever since, it hurts my soul to be late.” It was there he began playing rugby too.
“I absolutely hated it,” he admits. “I was lumped in at tighthead prop for a year at 13. I was probably a bit lumbering. I could catch a ball, but I couldn’t pass, because I played Gaelic for years until I was about 16. That was my first love. I played Wicklow underage and stuff.”
In his second year, due to his height, Conan was shifted to lock and into their junior cup team. He began to like it more, especially when moving to the back row in his second year on the junior cup team.
“That’s when I thought ‘this is a great game’. We had some good coaches who liked us to play expansive, free-flowing rugby. From then on in I was pretty smitten with it.”
The coaches were Sean McCarthy, an Aussie who used to play for St Mary's, and Jason Emery, who had one cap for the Maori All Blacks. His first year on the senior cup team was, as he puts it, "under Tony Ward's tutelage", adding: "He literally just messaged me. I must get back to him. I'm forever in contact with Tony. He's always guided me through the years."
In his second year on the senior cup team, St Gerard's beat Terenure and Blackrock College to reach the semi-finals, before losing to a St Michael's side featuring Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh. They reached the semi-finals again the following year before losing to Roscrea.
Conan played for the Leinster and Irish U-18s and U-19s teams, alternating between the second- and back-row, and was told after the Five Nations tournament in Wales by one of his coaches that his best hope of making it as a club player was as ‘a non-jumping secondrow’.
Conan thought differently ever since that first run to the semi-finals, but whereas Jordan Coughlan and Conor Gilsenan went straight from Clongowes into Leinster's senior academy in 2011, Conan went into their sub-academy. Studying marketing in DIT and living in town, he cycled from Tara Street through a deserted Grafton Street at 6.30am every day in the freezing cold, to train with Dave Fagan in the Donnybrook portakabins.
“It was testing. All your mates are in college and all going out on the tear every night, and you’re going to bed at 10 o’clock and getting up at six, missing out on all that. But I worked hard in those early years because I knew I was behind other people. I knew I needed to work harder to get where I wanted to go.”
Playing with the Old Belvedere U-20s, and then in the Ulster Bank League, helped him no end.
"That was a massive influence, great lads who I'm still mates with today, and great coaches. Andy Dunne was senior coach at the time, and Simon Keogh was still playing. The physicality of playing against older lads was a great learning curve."
After two ensuing years in the Leinster academy he was promoted to the senior squad in 2014. He’d made his debut away to Cardiff in February 2014, scoring a try with his first touch off a scrum in a 34-22 win and was man of the match.
“I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I didn’t know the structures. The academy wasn’t integrated as much as it is now. I was all over the place. I bluffed my way through 80 minutes. I think the man of the match was a case of ‘give it to the young lad who scored a try on his debut’ but it was a fantastic experience.”
The following 2014-15 season, his first year on a professional contract, he made 22 appearances.
“I was a very nervous, awkward and shy teenager, and when I was in the senior set-up I was a little within myself, ‘just get through it, don’t make mistakes’. But as I became more familiar with the lads, and what it took to be a professional rugby player, I relaxed and felt more comfortable, as a person and a player.”
However the 2015-16 was spent mostly on the sidelines. Training on the UCD astroturf the following week in November, Conan fractured the fifth metatarsal on his right foot, and was also troubled by ankle ligament damage. It was his first extended stint on the sidelines.
“You quickly realise that rugby waits for nobody. It just moves on so quickly. Mentally I really struggled with it. I didn’t know myself for months.”
He became better friends with Mick Kearney, who had ligament problems in his foot, and Ed Byrne, who was recuperating from cruciate ligament damage. Conan also bulked up, but too much, rising to 118kg, and his body couldn't cope. He's back to 110kg now. The ankle required another operation, before he then broke the first metatarsal in his left foot.
My game wasn't where it needed to be then. I look back from where I am now and I didn't deserve it because I wasn't at the races."
In the second warm-up game of last season against Gloucester, he injured his left ankle. “Both ankles are about 90 per cent steel at this stage.”
He returned to play against Connacht at the end of October, and has since started 30 games for Leinster, including their last ten in the Champions Cup. “Years ago, Matt O’Connor gave me a piece of paper which had a play on a Sun Tzu quote (“Opportunities multiply as they are seized”) and it read: ‘Opportunities arise as you take them’. That is always something that stuck with me from then on.”
The summer tour to the USA and Japan followed, when he started all three Tests, to bridge a gap of almost two years since his debut in the 2015 World Cup warm-up win over Scotland.
“My game wasn’t where it needed to be then. I look back from where I am now and I didn’t deserve it because I wasn’t at the races.”
The player-driven culture in Leinster, the impact Stuart Lancaster has had on him, and his intervening experiences had him better prepared for the summer tour, when he played all bar four minutes, scoring three tries.
“I loved every second of the tour, travelling to Japan, and seeing Tokyo was incredible, and going to New York was just brilliant. Rugby is an amazing game, and it brings you all over the world, which isn’t bad. Japan is such a culture shock, it really is. So different. I think Tokyo was the cleanest, most organised city I have ever been to.”
The tour also gave him more belief, that he could play at Test level, and that his game could continue to evolve. Another cap, and a fourth Test try, followed against Fiji last November.
“I felt more mature as a rugby player, not some kid with a number on his back. I’m 25 years old and getting on. My girlfriend always gives out to me for saying that, but in rugby terms I’m not young any more anyway. I don’t have naivety on my side any more.”
A few weeks ago when Leinster played the Dragons he noted that their replacement scrum-half, Dan Babos, was born in 2000!
“That was the moment I felt like ‘I am getting on now’.”
All the more need to make the most of today's opportunity. All the family will be there. Another step up. The Six Nations, Italy and Sergio Parisse, all 150 caps of him.
“For anyone, in any sport, that is mind-boggling really. I’ve got five caps! But it’s such a testament to him, and he’s somebody I’ve admired sine I was a kid. He has such an array of skills, and he can do it all. We were watching clips of him during the week. I can’t wait to test myself against one of the best to ever do it in my eyes as a number eight.”
Opportunities arise as you take them.
“And this is another one, my biggest yet in green.”