It’s been a long time since Jack Conan looked ill at ease in any jersey, but the Leinster back row couldn’t help but fidget and squirm in the new Ireland number he was asked to sport at the kit’s launch on Dublin’s southside.
He isn’t the first in that. It’s an old trick of the trade to shoehorn players into jerseys a size too small for these promotional gigs: a particularly cruel trick to play on professionals still shedding the last of the summer excess in pre-season training.
Still, he’s breathing easier by the time the snaps are done with and more than willing to talk about the season to come and the one left behind when a rare injury to Jamie Heaslip opened up doors for him at both club and international levels.
Conan’s abilities had never been in doubt, but a welter of injuries since his first appearance at senior club level back in 2014 had curbed his career to such an extent that there were whispers about possible moves to Ulster and abroad. A fresh start.
Not anymore. Not for now anyway.
He bagged 20 appearances for Leinster last term and followed them up with three run-outs for Ireland on the summer tour to the USA and Japan. More notable than the quantity of games was the consistent quality of performance.
A straight talker, he had no hesitation in standing over his body of work.
“I’ve put my hand up now and shown that I can play at that level and perform. I was consistent throughout those three Tests but, in saying that, Jamie is coming back fit now. Jordi Murphy is back as well. That’s just in Leinster alone, so the pressure is on.
“I just have to put the head down and hope that I get the nod in November.”
Feedback from Joe Schmidt has been funnelled back via Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster. Conan describes it as a “compliment sandwich”: Two parts good stuff bookending the odd “work-on” required going forward.
He’s 25 now, a man approaching his peak years as a rugby player and there is a clear perception that Conan has long since served his apprenticeship. He certainly doesn’t demur when it’s put to him that this is his time to shine.
“Absolutely. I think I had a great season last year and I backed it up with three good performances in the green jersey at the end of the season. I’m not looking to take my foot off the pedal at all, even though there are people coming back into the frame.
“I think my time of being patient is over. Now it’s time to play and perform in those big games. I’ll be disappointed if I’m not selected when it comes to Europe and things like that, but that’s not in my hands at the moment.”
Where has it all gone right?
He has matured, for a start. He understands the game that bit better and his confidence, never much of an issue, is rocketing north. If there was a negative it was a workrate that could have been higher, but he has addressed that after discussions with Lancaster and Schmidt.
Though he can play at openside too, Conan’s career path points in the direction of No 8, so it will be fascinating to look on as he goes up against a soon-to-be-fit-again Heaslip for that berth with Leinster and Ireland.
Though 33, Heaslip isn’t going anywhere yet. Conan had four operations in the space of just eight months not so long ago, while Heaslip’s current absence after going under the knife is so rare as to be rugby’s version of Haley’s Comet.
The guy is a stayer.
Conan knows the task awaiting him better than most — he isn’t the first to describe Heaslip as “the model pro” — and he finds himself treading carefully as he contemplates the remaining arc of his teammate and rival’s career.
“It’s fortunate for me that he’s on the verge of winding down,” he says, before pausing and tracking back, “not to say that he is, because he’ll bite my head off”.
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