Jack Conan is the coming man for Leinster as rise gains pace
The Leinster number eight would ease into the first team at most of Europe’s top teams
Jack Conan was Leinster’s best player in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day. Statistically speaking at least. Sixteen carries and 18 tackles is some evening’s work in Limerick. Especially when Leinster were on the receiving end of a heavy defeat.
Conan kept on going with the type of performance that would have him listed as the nailed-on starting number eight at any other club in the Northern Hemisphere.
Problem with his club is the other number eight just got nominated for world player of the year, even finished off the try of the year and is in possession, week upon week, of the best numbers, statistically speaking, on the rugby planet.
“Look, Jamie playing at his best makes me better,” Conan says matter-of-factly. “There is a good mindset within the backrow. As you know, the competition is massive. Everyone pushes each other.
“Jamie pushes me to be better and I’ll push Jamie to be better. Fair play to Jamie, he has been absolutely outstanding whether it be with Leinster or with Ireland. He has been absolutely outstanding whether he wins or gets nominated it for it. There is no bitterness there at all.
“Maybe someday he might throw me a one or two [games] but there is no bitterness there at all.”
“He does make me better. He sets the bar for the backrowers in the club and we are all trying to match it.”
The problem with Heaslip, for Conan, is he does all things that not only a number eight must do but is what a backrow needs to be.
“He has the ability,” Conan remarks. “He has a wide skillset, a good range of skills, he can be a seven and make turnovers. He makes a good lot of turnovers, more than I would. He is good at the passing game, he is good defensively, has a good all-round game, so you can put him anywhere really across the backrow.”
Injury at crucial moments, like rolling an ankle in preseason, have not helped the former St Gerard’s schoolboy’s cause. But there is no one like him in Leinster. No one carries with the same directness or possesses Conan’s dynamic power.
It begs the question over the next season or two of whether he should stay put.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone from anywhere else. I know for me when I was growing up, I didn’t want to be a professional player, I wanted to be a Leinster player.
“I’m a very loyal to this club and they’ve stuck by me. At times, they’ve given me opportunities when they didn’t need to. For the moment I’m here and giving it my all and then I’ll see what happens down the line.”
In the meantime he’s smarting after taking a fair amount of punishment inflicted down the M7, right in the face of CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony.
“It was a bit deflating, going down there and kind of under-performing in parts. I think the first 40 minutes we stood up to them. They had the ball for large proportions and we defended well and the scramble was really good.
“Obviously it was really disappointing to concede those tries but I thought we were right in the mix. The second half we came out, gave away an early score, heads probably just dropped a bit and they upped the tempo and showed that bit more experience. We let them eke their way into the game a bit more.
“I got through a lot of work, I sit here now with my lovely face, it was very physical, I am happy enough with how I went in parts. I made a few stupid mistakes I shouldn’t have. But I would have rather I had a poor day than play okay and not have the win.”
Different breed to Heaslip, but sounds like him when it comes to basic desire to achieve.
There is a good road ahead for Conan, beginning with ringing in 2017 against Ulster, if room can be found for his massive frame.
There was one cap against Scotland before the World Cup. Then injury, again. He’s had enough of that.
“There is times, even over the November internationals when you see lads getting caps, am I envious of them? Absolutely. That was me at one stage getting my first cap. Maybe if I was fit, things would have worked out differently and I would have played, but that is not something you can hold onto.
“I would like to use that as fuel to the fire and something that pushes me on to be better and drives my want to get back in the green jersey and my want to get back and play rugby and play for Leinster.
“All I can do is worry about myself and worry about my day-to-day and getting better and taking my opportunities in here to progress on.”