Leinster’s Jack Conan back and eager to make up for lost time
Number eight excited to return to action following a long struggle with injuries
Leinster’s Jack Conan tackles Connacht’s Kieran Marmion during the PRO12 clash at the RDS. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Jack Conan was delighted to come through the match unscathed. It was a small, personal victory, tucked in the folds of Leinster’s Guinness Pro12 win over Connacht.
By his own reckoning it was the number eight’s first appearance at the RDS in almost 13 months. Bedevilled by injuries, broken foot, ankles surgeries and wrist to highlight a few, the rehabilitation periods descended into a gruelling slog, a massive mental and physical challenge.
He played just four 80-minute matches last season and then a pre-season match against Gloucester damaged an ankle severely enough to require surgery. The British & Irish Cup offered him a benchmarking process, fitness wise, and then last week, Leinster coach Leo Cullen decided that he was ready to resume at the hub of the senior team.
He admitted: “It’s good to be back. I feel like I have lost a year in my career in some regards. So when Leo [Cullen] told me early last week that I was getting the opportunity to run out again, I was unbelievably excited. It felt like my first cap again.
“I was in the changing room beforehand and was a bit overcome with nerves. They kind of went when I ran out and saw the stadium full to capacity.”
Conan contributed handsomely to a sterling effort from Leinster’s backrow, flankers Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien, immovable objects at the breakdown, poaching turnovers, while the number eight, carried powerfully including one gallop and chip ahead that pre-empted a Leinster try.
“I think they played unbelievably well, Dan [with] two or three crucial turnovers and the same with Seán which, after the first 20-minutes when momentum was swinging in Connacht’s favour, helped us to slow it down and get our hands on the ball.
“That allowed us to settle and build our way into the game a bit more. That was largely down to the two boys and the effectiveness they brought at the breakdown.
“Those first few collisions and phases were a bit hectic. At times you have a bit of an out of body experience and you’re lost [temporarily]. When you snap back to reality [and stay] in the moment, I was much more focused.”
Conan won his only cap to date for Ireland against Scotland in a pre-World Cup warm-up game against Scotland in August 2015 and while domiciled on the sideline has watched several friends embrace Test match and Champions Cup rugby.
“I am envious of how the lads have gone in the last 12 months. You have seen people step up. Josh [van der Flier] has been absolutely fantastic. In my opinion he has been our best player so far this year and through large periods of last season.
“Dan too, two lads I have known for many years. It is a great to see them going so well and taking their opportunity. I am envious of how well they have played. I want that for myself now that I am back and fit finally.
“For me, I can’t worry about other people; it’s about looking inward and focusing on what I need to improve on. Stuart [Lancaster] has come in and brought a higher standard, great skill levels to our training sessions and games, so I just think I need to match the lads who have got those few extra weeks ahead of me.”
There were times when Conan fought to shake off the demons that lurk along a rocky rehabilitation road; progress occasionally takes a day or two off. “When you don’t see any progress it is tough to take and it can weigh heavy on your mind.
“The thing is to stay positive and a couple of the lads were injured as well so I had people in here that were going through the same and it’s always handy to sit down at the end of the week and have a coffee and vent your frustration and anger.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Conan sought a distraction and along with Cian Healy and Mick Kearney decided to go to woodwork classes. He laughed: “Cian is trying to bend the wood and break it with his hands and Mick is kind of all over the place. He can’t cut a straight line.
That’s a pleasant diversion. But Conan’s priority is to get back to rugby’s centre stage and to start making up for lost time.