The physicality endemic to modern professional rugby is asking ever more of the game’s elite players but none reach the top without a thick skin.
Every game and training session is taped. Multiple cameras leave nowhere to hide and, while Joe Schmidt’s review sessions have taken on mythic proportions, they are merely symptomatic of the honesty and forthright criticism that are now integral to the dressing-room.
Jack Conan did some decent things last month against Fiji, scoring a fourth try in what was just his fifth cap, but the Leinster No. 8 didn’t wait for the home truths afterwards and instead approached the Ireland coach for a few pointers.
Schmidt singled out his defensive work. His tackle entry and effectiveness to be precise.
Conan doesn’t miss that many but the Kiwi impressed on him the need to make more of an impact with them. His work around the ruck was mentioned too.
The gist of Schmidt’s message was that the 25-year-old, renowned for his ball-carrying impact more than anything else, needed to work on his all-round game, to pose a more multi-faceted conundrum to the opposition going forward.
Such straight talking isn’t all that commonplace in most workplaces — and certainly not on a weekly basis when individual faults are highlighted on a big screen — but Conan shrugs off the suggestion that all this is some sort of blow to the ego.
“No, I’m honest and self-critical and they are the areas I need to improve on. But I do that myself and it is just a bit more real when you get it from a coach. It is something I do need to improve on. I am not a million miles off but the margins in international rugby are so small.
“You know if you are not as effective in the tackle as you need to be a team can off-load and push to the line and cause line-breaks and stuff like that. I took it on the chin, it is an opportunity for me to be better, it is constructive.
“Hopefully over the next few weeks I will get to show Joe and the rest of the coaching staff that I have done a bit more on it and tried to improve. It mightn’t happen all of a sudden but bit by bit if I get that right I will be in a better position if I am selected for the Six Nations squad.”
Perspective is important.
Conan is keen to point out that he hasn’t been told to remodel himself as a player. These are mostly incremental improvements that are being sought. That and the need to cut out a tendency to ‘tap out’ and let parts of the game pass him by.
This isn’t new. His coaches at St Gerard’s picked up on it soon after he first played rugby aged 13. “I’m not off with the fairies mid-game or anything like that but there are just moments...” There will be no scope for any such down time this week.
Exeter Chiefs possess few stars but they are English champions and lead the ladder again as Leinster pay a visit to Sandy Park for the third round of the Champions Cup. It’s a daunting assignment and, for Conan at least, individually as well as collectively.
His opposite number is Thomas ‘The Tank Engine’ Waldron, a Kiwi-born and reared former England international who has bulldozed his way to 49 tries in 87 appearances since joining from Leicester Tigers.
Now 34, the absence of any Test appearances since the four he managed up to 2012 suggests that Waldron too has aspects of his game that could be more developed but the challenge for Conan is nonetheless considerable.
“He’s a great player and someone that any No. 8 can look at,” said Conan who has learned plenty from his close observation of Jamie Heaslip who remains sidelined with injury.
“You can appreciate his talents. He’s not physically the biggest player in the world but he gets through a huge amount of work and runs some really good lines.
“He has a great skillset and if he’s picked to play this week he’s definitely someone we’ll look at shutting down early on and not letting him play with confidence.”
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