A distance of 500kms up the A62 is all that separates Castres from La Rochelle but the distance travelled by Jack Conan is a heck of a lot more than these two French rugby towns which currently bookend the Leinster back row’s stellar Heineken Champions Cup career.
It was seven years ago at Stade Pierre-Fabre on the banks of the Agout that Conan fleetingly dipped his toe in the water, getting an eight-minute debut off the bench in a nail-biting October 2014 pool contest that eventually swayed the way of Leinster courtesy of Ian Madigan’s accuracy off the kicking tee.
Jump forward 79 months and next Sunday, May 2, will see Conan sprint out at Stade Marcel-Deflandre on the Bay of Biscay as a very different beast for his 31st appearance in the tournament. He can’t wait. The journey from there to here defines him, the then nerve-stricken 22-year-old at Castres evolving into the established force who is readying for his fourth ever semi-final at the age of 28.
Conan still gets big-match nerves – he fears there would be something wrong if he didn’t. But rather than have this edginess negatively affect his performances as it used to, his mind is now steeled and it has become adrenalin he thrives off. “If you don’t get nervous you are in the wrong game,” he replied when quizzed by RugbyPass about how his numerous and varied experiences on the European circuit with the 2018 champions have shaped him.
“That kind of nerves is always good. It’s something that spurs you on. You don’t want to be consumed by it to the point that it affects your performance but you need that pit in your stomach thinking, ‘Right, this needs to be a big one, I need to be at my absolute best’. It’s something that helps to bring out that level of performance that is needed.”
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It tellingly wasn’t always that way. Conan always had the talent but its delivery was sometimes inconsistent at Leinster. His Champions Cup debut under Matt O’Connor is illustrative. “I remember I was rooming with Brian Byrne at the time over in Castres. I was just bricking it for the whole weekend. I was so nervous, sick with nerves.
“I only got a short amount of time in the end. After the game you always enjoy it but beforehand I would have been worried about the outcome, worried about if I don’t do this or make a mistake what are people going to think of me, how is that going to affect me down the line?
“Now you realise that a mistake just happens and you have got to be prepared and sometimes you just make a mistake because you are trying to express yourself and you are trying to show what you are all about. That’s okay and we are backed to do those things, backed to make mistakes, but it is just not letting it dwell and moving on and being better for it really.”
In the past, those mistakes used to chew him up, gnaw away at his mind and clamp the shackles on. “Early on in my career it was something I let get the better of me,” he admitted.
“I let it affect me to the point of instead of putting myself forward to contribute I’d nearly sink into the background at times. It wasn’t all the time but those are the days you need to come alive and to be at your best. I have been better for it over the last few weeks. I have been enjoying it more and I have been playing better because of it.”
Putting it mildly, injuries have been a pain in the arse for Leinster back row Conan. Just when you think he is set to prosper, a setback smacks him sideways but there is hopefully longevity about what the No8 has been bringing in recent times.
He was immense in dusting up England in last month’s Guinness Six Nations, his first Ireland start in 18 months, and his rejuvenated punch didn’t end with eclipsing opposite number Billy Vunipola. Munster’s CJ Stander and Exeter’s Sam Simmonds have since experienced first-hand what a full-flight Conan has to offer, performances that suggest the Co Wicklow native is finally flourishing in the peak years of his career.
“I thought you were going to say I’m at the end of my career,” quipped Conan when it was put to him that just six of the Leinster 23 from his European debut are still on the club’s books, a turnover illustrating the sport’s relentless churn in personnel. “Look, it’s not something I have thought about too much. I am not 22, 23 any more but I’m enjoying my rugby more than I ever have and think if I keep that mindset I have got a lot of big days still ahead of me.
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“It’s just about performing on the days so I am not thinking about myself, I need to be at the best I have ever been at the moment. I’m just going out and thinking I’m just going to enjoy it, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and I’m going to work hard for the lads. Doing that I know I will be in a good spot because of it.
“My mantra at the moment is just trying to stay calm so I try not to get too worked up. You know all the hard work is done, know you have pushed yourself in training, know you are physically and mentally ready to perform so don’t doubt yourself. Go out and enjoy it, express yourself, you have been picked for a reason so go out and do what comes naturally to you, work incredibly hard for your teammates around you and you will come out in the right spot. The last few months I have just tried to enjoy every second of it and I have which has been great.”
The Conan reference to Leinster training is significant. Let’s be brutal: the PRO14 remains a tournament where the top-end level of competitiveness leaves much to be desired. It’s reflected in the Leinster dominance, the repeat champions adding a fourth title in a row to their roll of honour last month, and it’s now regularly said that training is of a higher standard than what confronts them on most match weekends.
“To be fair a lot is down to the coaches,” he explained. “We train at such a high level of speed that when it comes to games it is nearly easier because you can train over speed all week so when it gets to games it is never as quick and you are able to think in those high-pressure moments when you are really fatigued.
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“It’s because you have done the work. You have gone and punished yourself on the Monday and the Tuesday, the Thursday of that week and when you are struggling to make sure you are comfortable in those really dark places, that is something we do really well in Leinster and the coaches structure training in a way to bring the best out of people.”
Admittedly, La Rochelle away in a European last-four will be a huge step up from the PRO14 norm but Conan has an unbending faith in what Leinster can deliver, claiming as far back as the defeat in the 2019 final to Saracens that it was only a starting point for this latest team moulded by Leo Cullen, not the end of an era.
“We have learnt the hard way about how difficult it is to go over there,” he said about next Sunday’s assignment in France. “In 2018 we went over and we had Toulouse which was an eye-opening experience to play those lads over in France. It was an incredibly tough day for us and we hugely underperformed.
“La Rochelle are a great side, they are playing some fantastic rugby at the moment. Their ability to keep the ball alive and play through contact is second to none. They have got some massive lads with a lot of skill and pace. It’s a huge challenge but it’s something we are going to relish. You all want to go out and beat the best teams, the big championship teams. We wanted to go and play Exeter and beat them and now the likes of La Rochelle and the rest of the teams who are left in the competition are all of extreme quality.
“The nature of Leinster rugby is there is always fantastic talent and youth coming through that are going to push you on,” he added, reflecting on his reasons for optimism two years ago when there was a level of doom and gloom surrounding the club regarding how they were physically smothered in the Newcastle decider by Saracens.
“That has been seen in the last two years since then. You have your Caelan Doris, your Will Connors, your Scott Penny, your Ryan Baird and that is in the pack alone. There are other lads coming through, Harry Byrne. Hugo Keenan, who wasn’t involved back then in 2019, lads have gone on to get international caps and become mainstays in Irish rugby.
“You look at Hugo now, he played every minute of the Six Nations. Lads like that are coming through and raising the standard and raising the bar consistently. It’s a journey. We have learned from our mistakes of 2019 and even of 2020 against Saracens and we are better for it.
“It is tough to look back on it and it was tough on the day afterwards when you lost but you have to take those learnings and be better for it. I genuinely do believe we are.”
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