The big wins scored by the British and Irish Lions against the franchises in the build-up to Saturday’s first test against the Springboks have had the one obvious benefit of growing individual confidence and in no-one has that been more obvious than No 8 Jack Conan.
When the Lions squad was announced back in May, the Irish loose-forward was taken by surprise. He hadn’t started the season thinking about making the Lions tour group as he was returning from a long injury lay-off following an unfortunate injury that ended his 2019 World Cup campaign prematurely.
To refresh memories or fill in those who don’t know, Conan went to the World Cup in Japan with a foot niggle that eventually grew into something much more serious, with the back rower telling the Irish media last year about the utter dejection he felt when, in his words, “it just gave way” during a training session.
TOUGH RIDE COMING BACK FROM INJURY
The injury not only forced him to fly home early from the World Cup, it also ruled him out of rugby for six months. Then came Covid, so it was only 11 months later, last August once the northern hemisphere entered the return to play phase, that he got onto the field again. And even then it was a tough ride for him, as he had to fight off niggles and minor injuries that kept sidelining him.
His return to the playing field was so disrupted initially that the last thing he thought about was the possibility of going on a Lions tour at the end of the season.
“I had that bad injury in 2019 at the World Cup and it was very disappointing not get the chance to lay the marker at the tournament that I wanted to, and then we couldn’t play until August because of Covid,” explained Conan.
“I had a few knocks and niggles since we returned to play, but fortunately the last few months leading into these last few week have all been injury free and hopefully I can carry on like that. To be honest with you, when I first came back from injury I just took every day as it comes. I just wanted to play, to get on the field. The Lions tour was not on top of my list, very far from it in fact.”
CELEBRATION WAS DIFFERENT FOR HIM THIS TIME
The great form he showed playing for his club Leinster and for Ireland though quickly saw his confidence build, and the dream of being a Lion edged closer to reality. But he wasn’t completely confident he’d be named in the group, which explains the emotional way both he and his extended family greeted his selection.
He spoke earlier in the tour about having “an out of body experience” as the reality of what he achieved sunk in. It is interesting though that he didn’t have the same experience when Lions coach Warren Gatland named him in the test team, and that speaks volumes for the confidence he built up in the games against the franchise teams.
“It was a little bit different when I was named in the test team, mainly because I thought I was in with a better chance of making the test team than I thought I was in to make the tour squad,” said the Leinster No 8.
“It was obviously still fantastic to hear my name called out. It was a very anxious time waiting for the team to get name, it was an anxious time for everyone, and it was such a relief to hear my name.”
BIGGEST GAME OF HIS LIFE
Conan put the importance of a Lions tour, of being a Lion, and what it means to the players in perspective when asked about where Saturday’s first test stood in level of importance in his rugby life.
“This is the biggest game of my life, there is absolutely no doubt about that. It doesn’t get bigger than this for anyone.”
Looking back, Conan, who was born in Bray, Country Wicklow and will be turning 29 next week, reckons that the period he was away from the game nursing his foot injury, and the introspection it caused, inspired a mind shift that makes him a different player now to the one that went to Japan with the Ireland World Cup squad in 2019.
“I have come back a different player after a the injuries and I think I am enjoying my rugby more,” he said. “I think you can see it in my performances. I am playing better than ever before. I have just prioritised my ability be in the game and the moment a bit more, to put myself forward and not wait for things to happen, and I assert myself more.
“Before my injury lay-off I spent a lot of time overthinking and worrying about mistakes. Now I just get on with it after making a mistake and don’t let it affect the next moment. I guess I am just appreciating the job I do more. It is a dream come true being on this tour, and I am enjoying every moment of my rugby. That includes the bad ones, because it is the bad moments that make the good moments feel so good,” he concluded.
NO ILLUSIONS ABOUT CHALLENGE POSED BY BOKS
It’s a good philosophy to have and Conan knows he will need it against the Springboks, a team he has not played yet in his international career.
“I am not under any illusions, none of us are, we know about the physicality the South Africans will bring. It is something they pride themselves on. The set piece, the maul and the aerial battles are very important to them. It was a good test to play the South African franchises but now it is a massive step up. We have to go toe to toe with the Springboks and Boks and take their strengths away from them.”
Most critics consider the Lions to be on the back foot a bit due to not having played together before, and that counts as much for the back row as anywhere else – Conan will be teaming up with flankers Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry for the first time in Saturday’s test. He disagrees though that it need be a disadvantage.
“The South African lads have obviously played together more but I don’t think that will detract from our game at all,” said Conan, who made the shift to professional rugby with Leinster in 2014 following an apprenticeship with the Ireland under-20 team in 2012.
“All the back row players on this tour have bonded well together. It is not just about us who are starting, it is about everyone in those positions. We’ve worked out together every day, and Tom and Courtney have gone well in the games and in training. I am excited to be playing with them for the first time.”
SKIPPER JONES THE ULTIMATE PROFESSIONAL
He is also inspired by the thought of being captained by the legendary Lions stalwart Alun Wyn Jones. The Welshman will be playing his 10th Lions test at the weekend, and there aren’t many before him who have managed that, and Conan reckons it is a tribute to his immense professionalism that he is even in the country after suffering the injury that at first ruled him out of touring.
“Alun Wyn has done really well to bounce back from that injury and be on tour. The way I recover from things I would still be in a sling. It really is a tribute to him and his professionalism and we saw what he could do in the time he was on the field against the Stormers at the weekend,” says Conan.
“He is incredibly fit. In Jersey when we were being put through our paces in the training camp he was always the first to everything. When the water came out he’d sprinting across, and we have all noticed how incredibly hard he works on the pitch and in every step of his role. If ever there was someone who was a proper professional rugby player it is Alun Wyn Jones.”
Conan says that under Wyn Jones’ leadership, and following the mostly successful tour so far, the belief is high, and the mood is great.
“I think we are all in good form and we’ve massively enjoyed the last few weeks, I have not heard a single person moan or complain. The environment is bringing out the best in people and hopefully we will see what has been coming together for us reach fruition on Saturday.”