There’s a lot of hype going around in rugby these days. A player only needs one good moment to go viral and have thousands of fans proclaiming their brilliance. Sometimes they meet the hype, more often they don’t. Most often, they were overhyped in the first place.
In Round 2 of the Six Nations, without wishing to fall into exactly that trap of overhyping, Andrew Conway had pretty much a perfect game on the right wing. There are perhaps more things he could have done: more tries he could have scored, more assists, maybe even a conversion. But everything he did, he did extremely well – the everyday work as well as the eye-catching stuff. Without a mistake, without overdoing it, without taking anyone else’s glory. And, at the end, he got his try.
He’s been performing in a green jersey for a while now. In 20 tests, he has 19 wins (the one defeat came in a Rugby World Cup warm-up). He has ten tries from 13 starts and eight of those came in his last eleven tests.
But the game against Wales was his best yet. Let’s take a closer look.
From the start, literally
Johnny Sexton takes the kick-off and Conway chases it down. He doesn’t get the ball but he does manage to tackle Hadleigh Parkes, who has taken the ball. He then releases and immediately gets back into position on the right wing.
At 3:40, he chases another high ball and slaps it back, putting the Welsh defence under pressure. By the fourth minute, he’s putting more pressure on the outstanding Justin Tipuric as he clears.
Around seven minutes in, he spots that Jacob Stockdale has come off his own wing to chase work and swaps to cover the space, communicating with Stockdale as he does so. It sounds simple but organisation is crucial in test-level rugby.
Josh Adams, arguably the form wing in the world right now, can’t get past Conway as he starts to break not long after. Adams scored a hat-trick last week and has ten tries in eight games but Conway is completely unfazed and gets his man.
With just over ten minutes of the game gone, Conway has had significantly more impact than the man in the red 14 jersey, George North, a man with 96 test caps, would manage in the full 80 minutes.
Supporting the team
That’s an action-packed start but Conway didn’t tail off for a moment. Here, he holds his position perfectly to keep Adams and Leigh Halfpenny, aware of the danger he poses, focused closely enough on him that they can’t properly cover Tompkins’ missed tackle and Jordan Larmour uses his strength to get through and score.
Ten minutes later, he shows his kicking prowess, dinking a lovely grubber through and chasing it down so Halfpenny can’t collect it, making territory and gaining the position that soon leads to Ireland’s second try.
He demonstrated another level to his kicking game not long after, with this mighty kick, from just over his own 22m line, almost to the Welsh 22m line.
In between, he put in the type of tackle on Ken Owens that the Sheriff of Carmarthen is more used to being on the other end of. That kind of tackle is what defence coaches call “a momentum shifter”.
That was the first half. In between all of that, he maintained his defensive positioning, ran support lines, and generally didn’t put a foot wrong.
The second act
In the third quarter, Wales had most of the ball and mostly attacked Jacob Stockdale’s wing or the middle of the pitch. Throughout, however, Conway held his defensive position and, when the attack came near him, communicated with and reorganised the rest of the line.
Keeping focus for such a long period without the ball is difficult to do and exploiting a distracted defender out wide after a series of phases is something Wales have done successfully in the past. Conway never gives them this option.
Then, as Ireland regain possession, he once again shows what he can do.
Here, he shows his background as a full back and comfortably takes a high ball, despite the increasingly poor conditions.
Almost immediately afterwards, he chases another high ball and puts in a tackle on the Welsh receiver, replacement fly half Jarrod Evans.
Finally, after 74 minutes of doing everything right – catching, chasing, defending, kicking, running, tackling – he gets his try. It’s a pretty easy finish for a winger and Conway, unsurprisingly at this point, makes no mistake as he hands off Johnny McNicholl on the way to the line.
Looking good in green
There has been a long-running debate in Irish rugby about selection on past record over current form and Conway is one of those players who fans have previously clamoured for. With performances like this, it’s not hard to see why.
He, Larmour, and Stockdale aren’t being used much for distribution right now by Ireland – all three are below the average passes per carry for the tournament in their positions – but their strike running was extremely effective against Wales and the other aspects of their game are strong enough that, so far, they look to be balancing the increased attacking focus of new coach Andy Farrell with the defensive demands of former head coach, Joe Schmidt.
And that’s the final point here. Sometimes good players stand out in bad teams or on bad days. Everyone in a green jersey played well in Round 2, not just Conway and not just the back three. They might not have been outstanding individually but they all made each other better, performing to a level that allowed their teammates to play well.
Conway’s contribution was one part of that – but, in a good team that played well, he stood out as an exceptional player.
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