Jack Conan: ‘The road to here hasn’t always been easy, but it has definitely been worth it’

Leinster and Ireland number eight has enjoyed a remarkable change to his fortunes

Jack Conan has become one of the undoubted rugby stories of the year. A feelgood story too. And one that wouldn't have seemed possible at the start of 2021, even in his own mind.

At the turn of the year, Conan had just recovered from a neck injury which had sidelined him again for almost three months. He hadn't played for Ireland since suffering a fractured foot at the 2019 World Cup. Whatever New Year's Eve wishes he made, playing in the first Test for the Lions didn't feature in his thoughts.

"No, it didn't. It wasn't among my wish list then I must say," he admitted with a chuckle from the squad's base in Cape Town on Thursday, two days out from his Lions Test debut. "At that stage it was just about getting fit again and not having these constant setbacks. So I wasn't projecting myself too far forward. It was very much take every day as it comes kind of mindset. No, the Lions was not on top of my list. It was far from it really."

Baby steps too. Three substitute cameos with Leinster before a couple of starts, then his first cap in 18 months off the bench against Italy, and another against Scotland, before he was reinstated at '8' against England.

Conan had a stormer, athletically and skilfully setting Keith Earls away for the first try from the tail of a lineout, then picking up and bursting through Luke Cowan-Dickie’s tackle to score his first Test try in two years.

Like Peter O’Mahony four years ago, a timely big game return over England had propelled him into the Lions frame, even if he did describe hearing his name read out as a surreal, out of body experience.

Conan’s Lions form has earned him the starting role at ‘8’ this Saturday – 32 tackles made, none missed, 16 carries for 137 metres with eight defenders beaten, three turnovers won and a couple of tries.

He believes he’s come back a better player and attributes this as much to a change in mindset, “to stay in the moment a bit more” and “assert myself a bit more”.

“I probably spent a lot of time overthinking and worrying about mistakes whereas now you realise that if you make mistakes it’s just part of the game. It happens, so just get on with it and don’t let it affect the next moment.

“In saying that I’ve generally just tried to enjoy it a lot more, to appreciate where I am, the life that I have and the job I get to do every day. It’s a dream come true and I’ve loved every moment of it, even the bad ones, because it makes the good ones seem even better.”

Plenty have helped him here too.

“Jeez, that’s a long old list,” he says, and begins with his girlfriend Ali Cunningham. “She probably had to put up with me through a lot of dark times and low moments. She’s always there with a positive attitude and a smiling face. She’s stood by me through a lot of tough times over the last three or four years.

“So between her and my family, my mates, the physios and all the S&C staff at Leinster who’ve put so much time into me through all the setbacks. They’re the people that I owe the most. It means a lot to be here now and to look back and see all the hard work that they put in and how much they’ve helped me and how much I owe them.”

His girlfriend will watch from his home in Carrickmines.

"I'm actually housing James Lowe and his missus for a few days. I don't know if he got kicked out of his house or he's sold it and waiting to move into his new one or something.

“Then there’ll be a bit of a party, I would imagine, in Bray with my parents and the rest of the family. By the sounds of it they have a few people coming over, with protocols and social distancing and all that. But yeah there’ll be a bit of a party in Bray if anyone is looking to join.”

Asked if this is the biggest game of his life so far, he pauses and smiles. “I don’t think it really gets any bigger than this for anyone so definitely; definitely the biggest game of my life so far.”

In his quiet moments this week, Conan could reflect on his road from the World Cup to here.

“It’s had a lot of ups and downs. The road to here hasn’t always been easy, but it has definitely been worth it.”

Some journey all right.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times