Music took centre stage for Andrew Conway and the Irish rugby squad on Saturday night as they basked in the glow of their second successive Six Nations victory under Andy Farrell which was an impressive 24-14 victory over reigning Grand Slam champions, Wales.
First, the spotlight shone on Max Deegan. The 23-year-old won his first Ireland cap against Wales and as such, had to produce a party piece in front of his teammates. Deegan told the media on Saturday evening that he would be belting out a rendition of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang, a performance which “went down very well” according to Conway.
Next up was perhaps a more unlikely source in the form of Peter O’Mahony. The Cork man sat alongside Danny O’Reilly of The Coronas to sing one of the band’s tracks as Conway recalls with a grin.
“Yeah, he was [singing], in fairness to him,” Conway said at the launch of Pinergy Drive Solutions.
“Ballsy! He’s confident. I think he was saying after that he knows all the words to that song ‘Grace’ and once he got up there, he only knew about half of them. He’s like, ‘I promise you I know every word’, but when you’re up there it’s a different story!”
Conway can’t help but chuckle as he reminisces about that night and it’s obvious from how he speaks that he and the rest of the squad are enjoying the new approach to the international team both on and off the field.
There has been changes to the gameplan, the approach to training and the off-field social activities – on the evidence thus far, albeit limited, it seems to be working in Ireland’s favour.
However, this Irish team knows better than most just how sudden performances can drop and how the narrative can swiftly change.
Johnny Sexton made the point in Saturday’s post-match press conference that media commentary describing Ireland’s new approach as completely different to the Joe Schmidt era was incorrect. And he’s correct in doing so, much of the new approach revolves around tweaking and refining Schmidt’s methodology which, for the most part, brought unprecedented success although it’s clear that some things have changed – and for the better.
“Wins are probably the most important thing but I think regardless, there’s been a conscious effort to have a bit of fun and enjoy each other’s company, have a bit of craic with each other, change up a few bits and pieces which probably needed a small bit of changing after a couple of years.
“It’s hugely important for everyone, for me, for you guys, to walk into work and be happy and enjoy yourself.”
In many Irish rugby supporters’ eyes, Andy Farrell hasn’t made enough changes with regards to personnel but perhaps he doesn’t need to when the likes of CJ Stander, Conor Murray and O’Mahony, who were under severe scrutiny in 2019, look revitalised in the new environment.
Conway doesn’t fall into that redemption narrative, rather he was one of those players who perhaps deserved to have more of a starting role last season. Nevertheless, his form has now been rewarded which saw him start his first-ever Six Nations match against Scotland and subsequently keep his place against Wales where he arguably put in his finest performance in a green shirt.
Now that he has a grip on that 14 jersey and considering the inconsistent nature of his international appearances since he made his debut in 2017, one would be forgiven for thinking Conway would be content with his current situation. But the former Blackrock College alumn is always striving for more.
“I think if you’re settling off the back of getting a starting position, you’re selling yourself short. I know the competition within the back-three and I want to be starting as much as I can. I know to do that, I have to perform optimally and I need to keep growing as a player and keep getting better and better.”
“Reflection”, “meditation”, “growing” – these are prominent words in Conway’s vocabulary. The 28-year-old has spoken regularly in the past about how a change in mindset has brought about his excellent form. He worked harder at the elements of his game which were below par and he’s now reaping the benefits.
One element of the game which illustrates this perfectly is Conway’s ability in the air. Once an area which he shied away from has now become one where he completely excels.
“I remember doing them [high ball work] at first with Joe [Schmidt] in Leinster and being crap. So, so terrible. And even in games if I was playing on the right wing and the team who were box-kicking to me, Isa [Nacewa], who would be playing at 15, would actually come over. If he was able to take it, he’d just take it. You wouldn’t really see that happen nowadays, the 15 coming over to take the 14’s box-kick.
“Yeah, probably just through time, repetition, understanding that it was a big part of the game and seeing guys who were good at it a level above me and how much of an impact it could have for the team. Once you start doing things and you get that bit better at it, you start wanting to do it more to see how good you can get at it. It changes over time.”
Conway now uses a variety of tools to help him reach his full potential; noting in his journal, meditation, mindfulness – they all play a part. These elements are often honed during preseason where Conway trials new elements of preparation – if they work, they are now included apart of his weekly ritual. If not, they are discarded.
“If you can work out and spend a bit of time trying to improve yourself in that pre-season – as much as you’re physically working as hard as you can, if you’re mentally doing a bit of training, putting your finger into a few pies and seeing what else is out there and use them as a trial basis through the 10-week period.
“Then it’s ‘ok this works, this makes me feel better. I feel good if I’m doing a bit of meditation, I feel good if I’m writing down a few bits and pieces.’
“Then you take it in and then you reassess as you go, what works and what doesn’t.”
“It’s also being smart so it’s trying to find what works for you, getting a formula and putting that into practice. Then reassessing and reflecting on that – what was good, what was bad, take out what was bad, add something new and then continue on. Just being conscious of that I think is one of the biggest lessons I took from the few years to actively make an effort to reassess as you go.”
Playing The Space
Conway is clearly benefitting from this and it’s tieing into Ireland’s new approach on the field. There has been a clear pattern of Ireland running with the ball in areas of the pitch where we would have expected to see a kick in the past, although the winger makes the point that it’s all about playing to space which may require a pass or even a kick.
“Playing the space is the key thing. Wherever the space is, people want to go and find it. If that’s through the hands, that’s great. If it’s putting the ball up in the air and getting after then that’s the case. If you’re able to do it all as a team, then you’re going to be in a good spot, not putting all the responsibility on the 10s and 9s to exit for us, move to width, kick it from width, bringing a fullback up and going in behind him.”
“There’s so many things that go into it. I kind of laugh when you see people say ‘it’s a simple game’. It’s not simple, there’s so much that goes into the simplicity of the outcome at the end.
“Decision making, execution, all the little details: who’s running lines, who’s holding bodies, pass execution… there’s just so many intricacies to a successful outcome and getting as good as we are or as we can be is the key to it.”
All of those little details will need to be executed to perfection if Ireland are to keep their Grand Slam aspirations alive as the test will be at the scene of their record defeat in 2019 – England at Twickenham.
“A lot of us hadn’t taken a loss like that in a long time. So it’s a good reality check that if you don’t pitch up there and you’re not right, they’ve got the ability to do that to you. Not many teams have that ability but England are one of them. At Twickenham especially.”
England will certainly provide the stiffest test of Farrell’s tenure so far but Conway can rest in the knowledge that his new-found preparation will put him in the best possible position to shine in one of the cauldron’s of Test rugby.
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