‘It’s fun hitting people and getting hit’: Conor Oliver gets stuck into Connacht story

Flanker back on track after frustrating spell at Munster and enjoying his best season yet

For those players who travelled from the east coast to the west coast, a Connacht-Leinster game has traditionally had an extra spice to it. Points to prove and all that.

This might have been true once upon a time for Conor Oliver, but despite his Skerries roots and winning a Schools Cup with Blackrock College, he has long since moved on from those days.

This is his seventh season away from Leinster, having spent the first five of them with Munster and the last two with Connacht.

“It used to be, but it’s not any more. I’ve done it so many times now. I kind of hold all the interpros together. I left Leinster so young,” he added, having moved to Munster when he was 20.

“Now I look at it as playing the best team in the competition. That’s always a great motivator and then the fact they’re the best Irish team. I wouldn’t look on it like a personal vendetta or anything. I’ve moved on from that.”

Besides which, the surfeit of interpros during the pandemic has also made the rivalries more familiar, or as Oliver puts it: “Doing the previews you kind of know what you’re getting in for already. So it is good in a way, but then it’s kind of bad in a way because obviously they know us as well. It’s a bit of a two-edged sword. But the interpros are still the most fun games to play in.”

An increased capacity of more than 8,000 at the Sportsground and a fair forecast also adds to the sense of occasion, not least as the same will be true of their Champions Cup round of 16 first-leg tie in a fortnight against Leinster, with the return in the Aviva a week later.

“I haven’t played with the extra seating in the Sportsground before so I’d say it will be rocking, although it always is to be fair to the supporters. It’s a nice ground to play in. It’s always a bit more intimate. There may be a smaller capacity but it never feels like that.”

A bigger source of motivation, Oliver concedes, is the need for redemption after the porous 56-8 loss away to Edinburgh, the most disappointing game he has experienced in a Connacht shirt and one they have been stewing on for three weeks. "What better way really?"

That result typified what he describes as a "massively up-and-down season for the team. We've had some huge wins and a few slip-ups." This has also left them in a battle to make it into the URC playoffs with five matches remaining, which he describes as "must-win games".

Yet against that, at 26, Oliver is having his best season on a personal level; a classic of a player whose form simply benefits from game time. In his last season at Munster, he made just two appearances off the bench. In his two seasons with Connacht he has played 35 games, including every minute of their four Heineken Champions Cup games save for a 10-minute sin-binning against Stade Francais.

His numbers have been exceptional. He is the 13th highest carrier in the URC with 97, and ranks around the top 10 in the Champions Cup table with another 40 in that competition.

He's 10th in the URC standings for "successful carries" with 52, and fourth highest Irish player behind Max Deegan, Stuart McCloskey and Gavin Coombes.

Oliver's numbers this season for clean breaks (seven), defenders beaten (21) and metres made (484) are all high while he is also the fifth highest tackler in the URC with 129, and second overall in the Champions Cup with 49, behind only his good mate from their Blackrock College days together, Nick Timoney.

And then there are his trademark skills in the jackal, where his 13 turnovers in the URC are the joint second highest in the competition.

Oliver attributes his form to a number of factors, including more game time. “You get used to the flow of a game and your match fitness goes up. You know how to deal with an 80-minute game.

“I think the way Connacht play suits me. We hold onto the ball a lot more. We don’t kick away that much possession. That’s probably why you’re seeing more carries because there are more opportunities to do so. We’re probably one of the highest in the league for run metres and carries per team. We’re a possession-based team.

“I think the way we’re being coached has helped me. It looks chaotic but it’s actually a very simple game plan and a simple way of coaching. There’s decision-making but you know exactly what’s expected of you. The coaches here have filled me with confidence and when you’re playing regularly as well it goes such a long way, because you want to be on the ball.”

By rights, Oliver should have been a footballer, for his family are steeped in the game for generations. His father Ray played for Home Farm and also coached. His mum Ger worked in the Shelbourne accounts department for many years and now works in the FAI. His uncle and his brother's godfather is Mick Neville, one of the most celebrated League of Ireland players of all time.

A midfielder cum full back product of Home Farm before becoming a cultured centre-half, Neville won six League titles and seven FAI Cups with three different clubs, the great Shamrock Rovers' side of the early 1980s, the Derry City treble winners and Shelbourne, before also becoming a coach with Shels and then the FAI.

Oliver often kicked a ball around Tolka Park after matches with his older brother Mark, and was a mascot on occasions there too. He played football at Skerries Town and Gaelic football at Skerries Harps, before taking to rugby with the Skerries Under-8s.

“I started off playing football and then played Gaelic football. I enjoyed the physicality of that and my mam said ‘we’ll try him at rugby’, and that was the turning point. I left football, and played Gaelic football and rugby, until I was about 15 or 16, and then started focusing on the rugby.”

That innate love for rugby’s physicality hasn’t wavered. While he is somewhat more controlled now, he’s always been pretty fearless with his body.

“I think any openside has to be. You’re in the wrong position if you’re not. I love that stuff. I don’t know why, but it’s fun hitting people and getting hit,” he says with a chuckle.

Oliver spent most of his school years at Skerries Community School before doing his Leaving Cert at Blackrock after catching their eye when playing for Leinster Under-18s. He also visited St Michael's to be shown their facilities before Peter Smyth persuaded him to come to Blackrock.

“Boarding there suited me better just because of the long commuting from Skerries to Blackrock. David O’Connor was one of my best mates back in Skerries and he went into Blackrock in third year, and I also knew his friends as well.”

Oliver’s Blackrock side beat Clongowes in the final, with Oliver scoring their first try.

“I loved my time there. It was a massive culture shock when I went there first. I went in thinking everybody was going to be a dickhead but everyone was sound,” he says, laughing. “It was a cool experience. I probably wish I’d gone there a year or two earlier.”

He went into the Leinster sub academy, played for St Mary’s in the AIL and for the Ireland Under-20s, but Leinster, awash with backrowers, didn’t offer him a place in the academy.

Peter Malone, then head of the Munster academy, contacted him and Oliver played in a trial match in Naas.

“Axel was there and other senior coaches. I played pretty well. They had a chat with me afterwards and a few days later rang me and said there was a spot in the academy. The minute they offered to me I said ‘yes’. I didn’t hesitate. That’s all I wanted to do, play professional rugby.”

Rassie Erasmus was a big fan, Johann van Graan less so. After a season in the academy, he was promoted to a development contract and played 14 times for Munster in the 2016-17 season before a shoulder operation meant he missed the first four months of the following campaign.

He did play six times under van Graan and signed a two-year deal but dropped a weight on one of his toes and was out for 14 weeks in the 2018-19 season, before being restricted to just four appearances. The next campaign, 2019-20, Oliver played only 37 minutes in those two games off the bench.

I went to Johann and said I was miserable, that if I got an offer could I leave on loan and he said yeah

“I still have some of the best memories of my career at Munster but the last two seasons didn’t go as I would have liked. That’s why I had to leave. Looking back I was a little bitter but some coaches like certain players and some don’t. That’s the way it is.

"In October of my last season in Munster I got on to my agent, Niall Woods, and told him I needed to move for the sake of my career. I was 24 and I needed to play rather than be sitting on the shelf. I went to Johann and said I was miserable, that if I got an offer could I leave on loan and he said yeah."

English-qualified through his London-born paternal grandfather, which meant he wouldn't be registered as a foreign player, Woods arranged for Oliver to go over to Leicester in January 2020 for 10 days as they were keen to look at him for the following season. He returned to Munster his career somewhat in limbo as the pandemic kicked in.

Whereupon Connacht made a concrete offer and, as Oliver puts it: “I felt I had a point to prove in Ireland.”

He’s fully on board the Connacht story and has signed on for another two seasons until 2024.

“I think we’re building something great here. I can see the process that we’re going through as a team. To be honest we’ve had some s**t losses and we’re not shying away from that, but that’s going to happen as you build squad depth with players who are ambitious.

“I think that’s what Andy [Friend] has been great at as well, contracting players who want to further their careers. Most of the players being signed are young and ambitious, and are coming here to make a difference.”

Oliver harbours ambitions of playing for Ireland, and he's had a phone call from Andy Farrell.

“That was a massive boost for me to even be contacted by an Irish head coach just to tell me I’m doing the right things. Obviously that tour to New Zealand is coming up in the summer so I’m going to put my head down to play the best rugby I can to put myself into contention. Playing for my country is my end goal.”

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