Watching Andrew Conway score that cracker of a try against Ulster last weekend belied the notion that reintegrating Test players back into their clubs is difficult.
Thomond Park witnessed a textbook Conway moment as the wing changed the course of the game with an excellent line through a gap in the Ulster defence and searing run to the tryline, the perfect way to announce his return from the World Cup.
It is perfect timing for Munster as the province embarks on yet another European odyssey this evening with a Heineken Champions Cup pool opener against Ospreys in Swansea.
In Conway they are getting back a player in the sharpest of form and playing with just a hint of frustration after Ireland’s World Cup disappointments in Japan.
Last weekend’s try in the PRO14 victory over the Ulster men was Conway’s fifth in six games since Ireland began a pre-season Test schedule in August. Three of them came in Japan, in starts against Scotland and Russia and then off the bench against Samoa, a strike-rate that led some to wonder whether Conway should feel aggrieved not to have been included in the matchday squad for that fateful quarter-final against New Zealand in Tokyo four weeks ago.
Conway, 28, suggests the calls for his inclusion were made with the benefit of hindsight and though he admitted to frustration at Joe Schmidt’s decision to omit him from the 23 in his interview with the Irish Examiner this week, his memories of Japan will be happy ones of a World Cup debut in which he gave his all and let no-one down.
“I loved it, I did. I had a really good experience,” Conway said.
As for the quarter-final, in which Ireland started with regulars Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings and Jordan Larmour as the outside back replacement, Conway disputes the suggestion there had been a bit of a clamour for his inclusion.
“I don’t know if I’d agree with that. I think there was a bit of a clamour for me to be included after the fact. I don’t recall seeing too much before. I could be wrong but people are very clever after a game and what should have been done.
“That’s just the way it is. That’s the reality of the world we live in. We’re performing in the public eye and people will pat you on the back when you’re going well and they’ll kick you in the head when you’re not going well.
“So of course I was frustrated when I didn’t get picked. I wasn’t entirely surprised, to be honest with you. I thought, based on Joe’s selections in the past that if the two boys, Earlsy and Jacob were fit I was pretty sure they’d play, and that was right so as much as I was disappointed, it wasn’t the most surprising.
“I chatted to Joe and he gave his reasons and I disagreed with a few and I agreed with a few. Obviously I’m going to be more on my side and he’s picking the team he wants to win a rugby match.
“Like, there’s nothing personal in anything, in my opinion, when you hear people talking about selections and why they pick this fella. The coaching staff sat down to pick a team who they thought would best beat New Zealand that day. It wasn’t anything to do with preference for different fellas. Maybe there’s a way different coaches select and you can see a pattern but they are picking a team on a day to win on a day. Obviously that didn’t happen.
“Everyone’s very clever after the fact about who should have been playing and who should not but that’s just not the reality.”
If there is a silver lining for Conway there is the strong chance his efforts made an impression defence coach and incoming Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.
“Hopefully, yeah. Exactly, like, actually Faz pulled me aside and had a little chat with me before I’d spoken with Joe that day I wasn’t picked. He just said he’d kept an eye on me during the session without saying anything to me and ‘well done on training well and making sure the team was as prepared as possible’ which was really appreciated.
“It was interesting that one, he was watching, and two, that he came up and noted it with me. That actually says a lot about him as a coach, which I was really impressed with and really happy with. So hopefully.
“I worked as hard as I could over there and was very comfortable. I remember saying to someone before the squad was picked, if I didn’t get picked I would have been obviously disappointed but I would have been comfortable with how much work I’d put into it and the preparation I did in the off-season, mentally and physically, and then the preparation I put into the pre-season.
“So kind of the same answer now. That I was comfortable with how much work I’d done and happy with how I played and you can’t control anything more than that.
And so to Munster, where another clean slate presents itself in the form of new senior coach Stephen Larkham, the Australian fly-half legend brought in by head coach Johann van Graan to replace Felix Jones and take Munster’s attacking game to the next level.
A lot has changed in the absence of Conway and his Ireland squad-mates.
“Johann’s still the boss but in terms of Stephen coming it’s a fresh voice,” Conway said before describing the presence of Larkham at Munster as “brilliant”.
Even after just a couple of weeks back in the fold, he has had his eyes and ears opened to that fresh mindset.
“It’s different and it will take a bit of getting used to, so that’s why I was probably a little bit nervous coming in and hoping to perform.
“It will get better as we go on because there’s loads of things in the game I didn’t even realise, position-wise, where to start as a winger and how you can influence the defence.
“You’re just not used to that, his opinion on things and that’s brilliant because we change and we can see how all those little things manipulate and end up in someone scoring a try in the corner.
“Like if we talk about the score that I had (against Ulster), I’ll get the plaudits for it but there’s two lads in a ruck that are doing extra work to hold fellas down and if they didn’t do that someone gets up, plugs the hole, and I get tackled and we’re not talking about that now.
“So all that detail is huge and I think one of the things that we try and pride ourselves on is noting that and making sure… it’s not about praise or anything but people like to be… if I go up to the two lads, it was Fineen and Pete, and funnily enough I haven’t said it to them yet but I should. I should go up and tell them ‘well done, that ruck was unreal’. One, because they deserve me to tell them and two, they’re more likely to do it again and do that extra bit of work and put that small little detail in.
Conway suggests the addition of Larkham could turn Munster from gallant but losing semi-finalists into genuine contenders for the first time in a decade.
“There is an argument that we weren’t expansive enough but the gameplan got us to three semi-finals. We want to get finals, we want to win but it’s kind of a tough one because we’re getting to where we want to go but not getting over that last hurdle. We’re in knockout rugby very consistently, in semi-finals the last three years but just trying to get home (draws).
“So winning those group games and Steve’s going to come in and put his own stamp on things but we also have a bit of a Munster DNA that we’re not going to go completely away from — dominant pack, work-rate, aggression, being good in the air, having a good kicking game but also having the option to move the ball when we want, change the point of attack, to have teams guessing a bit more so that they don’t know exactly what we’re going to do coming into games.
“That’s obviously his side of things and it’s not going to come straight away. The lads have done really well over the last month or so and we’re going to try and fit back into the system and add to it but it will be a work in progress.
“It won’t happen overnight but we hope it happens over a period that we are good enough to win and get out of our group and then reset and go from there. For now, it’s just a week to week focus.”