JACK CONAN IS honest enough to admit he is only in this position because of an injury to CJ Stander. But he also knows, with the Munster number eight absent for the next four weeks, this is his big opportunity, and he needs to take it.
The door has opened. No more waiting in the wings, or cameos off the bench, this is now his time. Against Scotland on Saturday in the red-hot atmosphere of Murrayfield, Conan has to stand up and perform. He’s desperate to prove his worth.
Conan pictured at Carton House yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“When CJ took the knock, you think you might be in with the chance to play,” he says.
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“Coming into this week, with one less back-rower fit, your odds are better. I prepped Monday and Tuesday as if ready to play and then Joe gave me the nod.”
Conan will win his 12th cap against Scotland, in what will be his 10th start for Ireland, but only his second in the Six Nations exactly a year after his last start in the championship against Italy at the Aviva Stadium.
While establishing himself as the first-choice Leinster number eight, Conan’s career in green — since his debut back in August 2015 — has been of a stop-start nature, deputising here and there for Stander.
His starting opportunity against Italy this time 12 months ago was prematurely ended at half-time because of a shoulder injury and while he got another shot in Australia, starting the final Test in Sydney against the Wallabies, wasn’t involved in the home wins over Argentina and the All Blacks in November.
“I’ve obviously been in a tough position for the last few years, there is such quality around the back row position,” the 26-year-old continues.
“You can’t look anywhere past what’s in front of you and even though it has been frustrating at times not to play as much as I would have liked, it’s the nature of rugby when you’re in this high-intensity environment with such calibre and character around.
“The time you do get to put on the jersey, you need to make the most of it.”
Conan is focused. He doesn’t seem as relaxed as to when he speaks to the media in the more familiar surroundings of Leinster’s UCD headquarters. He is the number one there, having earned his place at the top of the queue. Here, at Carton, he is straining at the leash to change the status quo. He is hungrier than most in Schmidt’s squad to prove that he belongs in that jersey.
“It’s a massive opportunity for me,” he repeats. “I’ve been waiting in the wings for so long and I probably haven’t performed at certain times. That day I came off the bench against Wales and made a defensive error and let them back into the game. The margins are so small at Test level so you just need to be at your best consistently.
Conan is back to full fitness and ready to go on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
“I’m excited, I’m looking forward to the weekend and it’s going to be a massive test for me and the squad. I’m focused, I know what I have to do, I know the role that has been given to me by the coaches. Now it’s just about executing and bringing that physicality.
“Everyone has a point to prove whenever you pull on a green jersey and none more so than myself. Obviously, I’ve limited exposure in it so every time I get it it’s an opportunity to relish and make the most of it. I feel I’m probably more comfortable in blue just because I’ve played more in it. Hopefully, there are a lot more opportunities for me, starting with this weekend.”
The important thing for Conan is to do what he does best, and not try and be Stander or Seán O’Brien or Jordi Murphy. He brings his own qualities to the back row, perhaps a more varied game than his direct rival, but now it’s time to find that consistency of performance at international level.
“I think it’s about being myself and not trying to emulate anyone else,” he agrees.
“I’m probably only here today and starting because CJ took a knock and he’s out injured, but I know what I do well. I can carry the ball, I can offload, I think defensively I’ve got a lot better over the last few years and that’s something I hope to bring this weekend, making collision-winning tackles in defence and to dominate collisions when I’m on the ball and connect up with the backs. I’m not worried about anyone else’s game or trying to do what CJ or anyone else who would have played at eight before has done.
Leinster supporters have seen plenty of it, Saturday at Murrayfield wouldn’t be a bad time for Conan — with the World Cup fast approaching on the horizon — to lay down a marker and produce his best performance in green. You only have to look at Dan Leavy’s role in Ireland’s Grand Slam win last year, following injuries to Josh van der Flier and O’Brien, to realise how quickly the pecking order can be reversed.
“Physically, I feel fit,” Conan adds. “I’m not carrying any injuries for the first time in a while so I feel like I’m at the peak of my powers, my body feels fit and ready to go.
“Once I have that confidence, it’s just about going out and playing. I’m obviously in for what I’ve done for Ireland and Leinster in the past and it’s just about adding on that and to keep on contributing.”
Following a tough Six Nations opening defeat to England, Joe Schmidt will look to regroup against a dangerous Scotland side. This week, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to assess the damage of last weekend and look ahead to the clash in Murrayfield:
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