Jack Conan makes an impact as he returns in Rome
He bridged a gap of a year and five months since his sole World Cup appearance
Ireland’s Jack Conan is tackled during the Six Nations match against Italy in Rome. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
The test debuts for Ryan Baird and Craig Casey were the two obvious highlights from Ireland’s win in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, not least after Casey demonstrated both his bravery and the quality of his voice when he belted out George Michael’s Careless Whisper in the away dressing-room. But the feel-good story of the day probably belonged to Jack Conan.
This followed what he described as the “crushing” experience of being forced out from the 2019 World Cup with a worsening ankle problem which had troubled him during the warm-up matches and, after one appearance off the bench against Scotland, was revealed to be a fracture.
When coming on just past the hour in Rome, therefore, it bridged a gap of a year and five months since that sole World Cup appearance in the opening game in Yokohama.
“It’s been a long time coming,” admitted Conan afterwards. “I can’t speak highly enough of how great it was to go out there on Saturday and get an opportunity to play even five minutes. To get 20 was fantastic.
“It’s been a bit of a miserable road the last couple of months, but I feel like I’m getting back to a bit of decent form and I’m over the moon. I really appreciate the opportunity the coaches have given me.”
At times the 28-year-old from Bray must have wondered if he would ever return to the Test match arena.
“Yeah, absolutely. 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 for Ireland,” said Conan, with disarming candour, as a neck injury interrupted his season and sidelined him for two months at the end of 2020.
“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 have I felt like I’m back to where I was pre- my injury.
“The injury I picked up in 2019 happened at the end of May. I carried it through to the World Cup, and it went fully at the World Cup. I probably haven’t been at a good level since April or May 2019, and while I’m not there yet I feel like I’m getting back to it and it’s an absolute joy.”
My best ability
In his lengthy absence Caelan Doris assumed the number 8 jersey with both Leinster and, all too fleetingly, Ireland, before he was laid low with concussive symptoms. Yet Conan was not remotely inclined to look on enviously.
“At the end of the day it’s not me against Caelan or me against any other back-row. It’s me trying to be my best to get to a level where I’m happy with it. If I do that, and I play at my best ability, then things look after themselves.
“So I never view it as me against anyone else because when lads get ahead of you I think you look outward instead of looking inwards. I couldn’t be happier for Caelan, and the way he’s gone the last couple of months.
“He works incredibly hard. It’s a joy to play alongside him and see how far he’s come at Leinster. Same with Rhys (Ruddock), getting a start last time, Will (Connors) and all these lads, pushing on and being involved.
“They’re close mates of mine, they’re lads I train with every day. If it’s not me I’m over the moon for them. It’s always great to see those lads putting on a green jersey and performing.”
Conan’s selection was also a statement of faith by Farrell, who singled out Conan’s impact afterwards, which was most evident in the carry before Casey and Johnny Sexton combined to put Keith Earls over for Ireland’s sixth try.
“In fairness to Faz and the coaching staff, they’re backing everyone to be themselves and to play to their best ability, and do what comes naturally to you. There’s a reason why you’re getting picked, even for Leinster, Connacht, Munster or Ulster, there’s a reason why you’re being brought into the Irish set-up.
“I know it’s been incredibly frustrating the last couple of weeks with results not going our way. Our backs are against the wall and there’s been a lot of criticism, which is overly-harsh at times. But when things go well we’re an incredible team. There’s massive scope for improvement across the board, even against Italy. We’ll look back and get better for it.
“It’s really exciting times for Irish rugby and for this group. There’s fantastic talent coming through – the likes of Ryan and Craig winning their first caps, some really exciting lads who I can’t wait to see what they can bring to the jersey.”