From frustration in a misfiring Munster side to a Test international chasing silverware, the last year of Andrew Conway’s career has run in direct parallel with the rising fortunes of the province.
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As his team faces into Saturday’s Guinness PRO12 semi-final as top seeds with a home draw against Ospreys, things are going equally well for the 26-year-old, named yesterday by Joe Schmidt in the touring Ireland squad to play the USA and Japan.
The chance to add to a first cap earned in the thrilling Six Nations victory over England at the Aviva on March 18 is a tantalising prospect for the Dubliner at the culmination of an outstanding season in the Munster back three but that Test debut off the bench was as much a monkey off Conway’s back as the realisation of a childhood dream.
From the beginning of his career at Blackrock College, Conway has dealt with being the next big thing.
From Leinster Schools Senior Cup success through to Ireland recognition throughout the age grades and a Six Nations title in 2010 with an U20s squad featuring the likes of Simon Zebo, Tiernan O’Halloran, Noel Reid, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy, it seemed only a matter of time before greatness knocked on his door.
And yet it started going to the other way. Let go by Schmidt and Leinster at the end of 2012-13, Conway had to reboot his career with Munster while his contemporaries started picking up Test caps and collecting Heineken Cup and PRO12 winners’ medals.
“I did have that growing up, that that was the perception of where my career was going and it didn’t go that way and lads that I was competing with did and went on to play for Ireland and went on to play for the Lions, have numerous caps, have won Heineken Cups or whatever it may be,” Conway said.
“So, yes, it definitely made it a bit more complicated in my head, asking the questions as to ‘why am I not doing this?’
“There are probably a few reasons, a few injuries, a bit of bad luck at times and maybe a selection or two that probably went one way and it could have gone the other.
“Then you’re not playing consistent games and whenever I came down with Munster, except for the first year with Rob Penney, we haven’t been competing. We were in a PRO12 final a few years back, but we haven’t been at the top table really.
“That was the perception, Leinster were playing really well, Ulster have exciting new backs, Connacht are ripping it up last year. Whenever your club isn’t doing well and you’re trying to break on, it makes it that much harder.
“Look at this year, there’s probably six or seven guys from Munster who got capped and if you look back at last year I’d say there’s a big difference (fewer). When Munster are going well it makes a massive difference.”
It was early last season that the late Munster head coach Foley noticed Conway had started to find some solutions.
In November 2015, Foley observed: “I think Andrew now is starting to understand himself a hell of a lot more and hopefully he grows as a player because of it.
“He’s changed a lot of his habits over the last six to nine months. He’s become a better player, a better person in and around the squad.
“He still has a bit of a journey yet. Hopefully over the next period of time, if we’re successful as a team what tends to happen is that players tend to get recognition from that.”
Axel the visionary, it turns out, for Conway has done exactly that, not exactly hitting the ground running for director of rugby Rassie Erasmus after an injury-hit pre-season but emerging as a mainstay of the Munster back three in a winning campaign.
Test recognition duly followed in that Six Nations finale but Conway was surprised by his own reaction to finally getting over the line and wearing the green.
“I actually thought I would feel different after it because I had built it up as this monster in my head for so long, that ‘I need to get capped and I need to play for Ireland, I can’t retire (without one)’.
“You build these things up in your head. It’s great, don’t get me wrong, I am delighted that I did play in that game and I obviously want to play in a lot more games coming up but you’re back to being a Munster player when you are at Munster and then if you are lucky enough to be called into Ireland camp to go on Ireland tours then great and you deal with that when you get out there.”
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