“This time around is a lot different and (I’m) now really coming into my own performance-wise.”
This time four years ago Jack Conan received his first cap for Ireland as he looked to make a late surge into Joe Schmidt’s final 31-man squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
That cap came in a warm-up game against Scotland at the Aviva Stadium as Conan started at blindside alongside Chris Henry and Sean O’Brien.
Unfortunately, the 65-minute performance wasn’t enough to convince Schmidt of his inclusion in the final squad for the World Cup and Conan admits it was a very disappointing experience at the time.
“I was pretty gutted last time not to get the nod but I was in a massively different position to what I’m in now,” Conan reflected.
“I look back now and the back-rowers that were in that World Cup squad had a lot more experience than me and they were all a good bit older than myself, other than Jordi (Murphy) and then Rhys (Ruddock). A vastly different position to what I’m in now.
“I have a lot more experience, I have played at such a higher level compared to back then. I’ve 14-odd caps to by name at this stage and I’ve matured a lot as a player. This time around is a lot different and now I’m really coming into my own performance-wise.”
Conan cites maturity, level of performance and consistency as the key difference between now and the 2015 version of himself. He’s made 13 further appearances in green since that Scotland game and has become a vital cog in the Leinster back-row which has seen them become one of the most dominant teams in Europe over the last few seasons.
This year, he has made the number eight shirt in blue his own and he was one of the eastern province’s best players in a season run-in which included knockout rugby games against Ulster, Toulouse, Saracens, Munster and the Glasgow Warriors.
The 27-year-old played the full 80 minutes in Leinster’s final three games of the season (Saracens, Munster and Glasgow) which occurred on three consecutive weekends – further highlighting his durability and consistency of performance which should put him in good stead for what Ireland will experience at the World Cup.
Those were incredibly attritional games which Conan still felt the effects of at the beginning of this summer’s preseason with Ireland.
“I got about three weeks off. It was nice to switch off and I think as you get older, the seasons seem longer and longer and they feel more attritional as well. I strangely feel fresher now than at the start of it [pre-season]. The first week or two, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m still in bits here’. I’m still carrying niggles from last season, my shoulder is at me, my ab is a bit sore.
“But once I kind of flushed that out and got it out of the system, it was grand. The weeks off then helped me feel like it was a new season, not just a continuation from last year. I definitely felt fatigued at the start of it but now I’m feeling good. The hard work nearly makes you feel better.”
A lot can happen in four years, and Conan admits he has matured a lot since he was a 23-year-old making his Ireland debut, naturally.
“To be honest with you, if I look back now compared to now and then, it feels like two different people that were involved in both. It feels like two different setups nearly.
“I probably wasn’t fully aware of the level that was needed to make the most of that opportunity and I probably didn’t make the most of it, albeit, obviously I went on to get my first cap which was a fantastic day and something I’ll always remember. Things are a lot different. I think a lot more is expected of me now.”
That expectation, of course, should be welcomed. If Ireland coaches expect something of you, it probably means you have consistently produced a high level of performance before and that certainly applies in Conan’s case.
The former St Gerard’s pupil, however, isn’t getting himself caught up in worrying about potential back-row combinations which Schmidt may go with for his final 31-man squad selection as Conan simply explains, “Joe does what Joe wants to do.”
It’s wasted energy worrying about what is out of one’s control and Conan’s focussed thinking in that regard applies to life off the pitch as he highlights the importance of switching off from rugby.
“It is a bit tough at times to get away (from it). I have a bit of a rule with my mates, just no rugby talk. I was sitting in a pub last weekend, I wasn’t drinking or anything, I was just down to see a few friends, one of the lads is back from Canada. I’d only seen him once since he’s back and he’s been home a week or two so I was chatting away and he’s like, ‘how’s the rugby going?’ And I’m like, ‘look, I know we haven’t seen each other in a while but let’s just talk about other things in life’.
“You spend so much time worrying about it and thinking about it that it’s nice to step away from that zone and have a few hours completely rugby-free.”
“Obviously, it’s tough when you come home and you might have had a disappointing day and you haven’t done as well as you wanted and you’re kind of bitching and moaning a little bit, giving out to your missus and blowing off a bit of steam…but I try not to talk about it too much.”
There’s plenty of water to go under the bridge before Schmidt announces his final squad including three games against England and Wales (x2) but Conan believes he couldn’t be in a better position in his career to get his seat on the plane to Japan in a few weeks’ time.
“I think I’m in the best part of my career so far. I’d be pretty disappointed if I hit a steep decline after this. I think I’ve got many good years left. I feel good, I feel fresh and physically, I’m in the best shape that I have been in years.
“I think I’m as ready as I ever have been. That’s not to say down the line I won’t be more ready or performing, playing better or maximising my own potential. I’m happy with where I am, it’s the best I’ve been but there’s still more to come.”
Jack Conan was pictured at the launch of the #ThisIsMyDublin campaign promoting Dublin City Sportsfest 2019. Sportsfest is a week-long celebration of sport & physical activity from 23-29 of September. Everyone is encouraged to participate regardless of age, ability or background. For more information visit http://www.dublincity.