Jack Conan ready to kick on from Lions breakthrough

Jack Conan is enjoying his rugby, but he had to learn how.
Jack Conan ready to kick on from Lions breakthrough

Jack Conan. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

Many is the player who has looked back on their international career and winced at the memory of the knots that tightened their stomach as kick-off approached. Enjoyment? Depends what you mean by it.

Jack Conan is enjoying his rugby, but he had to learn how.

A litany of injuries spread over a long period of time frustrated his attempts to make the most of his undoubted talents but a relatively clean bill of health in recent times, allied to a refreshing sense of perspective, has seen things change for the better.

A starter across all three of the British & Irish Lions tests against South Africa during the summer, he will be Ireland’s No 8 tomorrow when Japan present the first of three challenges to Andy Farrell’s men across the month of November.

“It's simple things really. Now I'm trying to enjoy it more than I ever have, and trying to take the stress out of it. After so many periods away from the game, you kind of realise how lucky you are to do what you do.

“To get the opportunity and privilege to play for your country is such a special thing. So, I'm just trying to make the most of every opportunity I get because I went two years to get a second cap.”

Conan found this state of mental equilibrium after talking to family members, fellow players and other people besides. It hasn’t changed the volume of work or diluted the desire. It has just allowed him to switch off when the work is done.

“It was definitely a bit of a learning curve and I took a while to get there, but it's definitely something that has helped me a lot now.”

He spoke a few weeks back about how his time with the Lions had changed perceptions of him, not just among others but maybe inside his own head too. There is a sense, after all the injuries and all the years waiting behind CJ Stander, that this is his time.

That the summer spent engaging the Springboks was a beginning rather than an end.

“What I love about Jack is that he's certainly not sat back in the pre season,” said head coach Andy Farrell. “He's certainly got the bit between his teeth to prove and kick on and say, ‘that's not the pinnacle for me’. It's about the next game and kicking on from there.

“Something's clicked with Jack in the last 12 months. He had a torrid time with injuries. He was a little bit stop/start as far as the international arena was concerned, but something's clicked with him.

“He's very comfortable in his own skin. He understands what his points of difference are and he's certainly putting it out there on the field and, in his first Test match of the season, hopefully he can hit the ground running.”

That’s an apt metaphor for what awaits this Irish back row. Japan are only too keen to keep the ball alive as long as possible, their fluid play with ball in hand asking all sorts of questions, aerobic and otherwise, of their opponents.

How Ireland counter that will be interesting.

The home team’s pack is hardly the biggest in the world but it is certainly mobile. And skilful. The front row of Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong speaks maybe loudest of all for that but mobility is exactly what the Japanese thrive on.

“It's trying to suit the bodies that you have and that's what Faz, Paulie and Fogs have done, said Conan. “They're picking lads who can play this mobile, expansive game with pace that suits us. In saying that, we obviously also have the ability to get into an arm-wrestle as well. There is a lot of pace there in that squad.

“Obviously the likes of (Tadhg Beirne) playing in the second-row, he could easily slot into the back-row. That helps a lot. We'll be looking to get on the ball a lot, make a lot of carries and definitely take on Japan in the areas that we can. And we will. I'm excited for the opportunity.”

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