‘I thought I was going to be absolutely smoked. He would have melted me in the ribs’

Heineken® Champions Cup star and Rugby Players Ireland ambassador Jack Conan.

IT HAS BEEN impossible to miss Jack Conan’s thunderous form in recent times.

The number eight shone in Ireland’s final game of the Six Nations after being handed a start against England, building on the series of excellent performances he has been delivering for Leinster.

Since, he has been a standout in his province’s wins over Munster and Exeter.

Ahead of next weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final clash with La Rochelle, Conan talked us through some of the moments that have seen him make a particular impact over the last few months.

The Keith Earls try

A stunning set-piece play from Ireland tore England apart for a first-phase try that featured a wonderful Keith Earls finish after Conan’s skillful touch to redirect Rob Herring’s long lineout throw back inside to the Munster wing.

“All week, we had said to ourselves that this was going to be the first play if we were in that certain area of the pitch,” explains Conan. 

“You’re hoping that if you haven’t got your hands on the ball in the first five or 10 minutes of the game, you’ll definitely get a chance with this play because I’m integral to the move.

“But 20 minutes pass and I have barely touched the ball. I’m thinking, ‘I’d want to get the show on the road here, I haven’t done anything.’

“We finally got our opportunity. We kick the ball into touch and Johnny [Sexton] makes the call. I’m thinking to myself, ‘If I drop this here, 20 minutes in and I’ve done nothing, I’m going to get slated for it!’

“We had only done it twice or three times during the week and it hadn’t really come off to the point we wanted to. So I knew it was a big moment. 

“We had prepped it for no England tailgunner to be there. Josh [van der Flier, red below] was coming into the lineout for a dummy lift and we hoped he [Tom Curry, yellow below] would bite down on that.

“But I go out and leave the lineout and I’m looking at Tom Curry thinking, ‘Right, he shouldn’t be there, that’s not what we planned for. But c’est la vie, let’s go for it and see what happens.’

“I thought I was going to be absolutely smoked because I’d be at full stretch and he would have just melted me in the ribs. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case and I was able to get up barely above him and flick it down to Earlsie.

“It was pretty instinctive at that time because that’s not what we thought was going to happen.

“I thought I was going to get loads of time on the ball to make a decision – either play Earlsie back on the inside or play Bundee short, who was coming at pace outside to go over the top of [George] Ford.

“Curry jumps with me and I’m thinking there’s no way I could get the ball and play it to Bundee, so I could see Earlsie in the corner of my eye. My instinct was to try drop it down to him and hope he could carry it and we would go into our phases.

“But my God, what a change-up he had onto the ball to go straight through and what an incredible finish to go around Jonny May, who is no slouch, and over in the corner – I don’t think anyone thought it was going to go as well as it did. 

“I felt in that moment that there was relief, a lot of pressure off me. It couldn’t have gone any better.

“I nailed my bit of it so I could relax and get into the game a little more, not be worried about messing up the move.”

Holding width

Conan continued to impress for Ireland against England, soon featuring three times in their remarkable 23-phase try, which the number eight finished.

Conan’s role within Ireland’s 1-3-2-2 attack shape was to hold width out in the 15-metre channel, where his comfort on the ball is obvious. It’s a position he also occupies very often with Leinster.

“I always love having a bit of space and time on the ball because you have that bit more time to make decisions,” says Conan.

“When you’re playing for Ireland or Leinster, when you’re in at six – which I was for the lineouts that day – you’re predominantly holding a bit of width, with one back rower on the other edge and the number eight more in the middle of the pitch.

“It’s not exactly how we do it in Leinster but it’s not massively different. Some days you can stand out there and the ball is never going to come to you. But we were trying to play with a little more width, we knew England were going to be a little bit more narrow, especially with the 13-2 set-up they have with two in the backfield.

“We felt there would be space on the edge if we were able to hold our feet, stay connected and quite tight to each other because obviously if you throw those long skip passes, they’re going to shoot out of the line because they’re such a high-pressing defensive side.

“It was great to get the ball in my hands with that little bit of space, you get to feed the likes of Jacob [Stockdale] or Hugo [Keenan]. You’re not just running into brick walls the whole time.”

Conan’s finish came on the left-hand side, where he ran a decoy line in front of Sexton before heading to the breakdown and finishing with a clever pick and go.

“Looking back on it, that is a terrible decoy line,” says Conan. “I have not sat down anyone there, I need to be hammering onto that ball as if I was going to get it. At that stage, I was fairly blowing and you’re waiting for your second wind to kick in.

“Once the ball is gone past me, I’m thinking I need to get to the ruck as quickly as I can because I know there are a lot of backs around me who will want to stay out and hold width and stuff. 

“I run that awful short line off nine and then try to get back into the ruck. 

“That ball through the middle of the ruck is not something we do a lot but I just noticed there was a space there and it was opportunistic at the time. Lucky enough, I have long enough arms to stretch out and get over the line.”

“I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had scored a try before that, I was on a long drought, probably the longest in my career.” 

Being direct

While Conan enjoys getting on the ball in wider channels, he is also required to carry directly into heavy traffic close to the ruck at times, as below against Exeter.

“It’s not always the prettiest carries, but it’s about making those inroads and winning the gainline, even if it’s a foot or half a metre,” he explains. “That’s going to make the defensive line work that little bit harder around the corner.

“Hopefully we’re playing at such a high pace, our two barrels or bullets are in nice and early [to clear out the breakdown] so the ball is on a plate for the scrum-half and we can take advantage of that folding defensive system that isn’t set properly because we’re playing at such a high tempo. 

“A lot of the time on that kind of carry, you’re thinking to yourself that you want to go hard, be straight, not drifting off the ball. Your width from the nine is important, you don’t want to get too tight because that’s an easy hit and makes for less ‘hold or fold’ decisions for the defensive side.

“And something that Josh van der Flier has done incredibly well the last few weeks is accelerating onto the ball when you get it, being really direct and trying to isolate a defender.

“You don’t want to be tackled by two guys at once so you want to isolate someone, you against them with you moving at full tilt and getting over the gainline.

“So it’s about squaring up, accelerating onto the ball and if you can, get a soft shoulder. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.”

Set-piece roles

Having featured centrally in Ireland’s try off the lineout against England, Conan is also often at the heart of Leinster’s set-piece plays, including the one below against Exeter which ended with a turnover penalty concession.

As Luke McGrath and Josh van der Flier attempt to lure Exeter’s eyes out beyond the 15-metre line, Conan comes back down into the shortside from Devin Toner’s pop.

“The move worked,” says Conan. “Right before we did it, Jack Maunder – who was playing nine for Exeter – is shouting, ‘Watch the front peel, watch the front peel.’

“We were going down the front and I’m thinking, ‘Ah, they’re well teed up for this, your man is shouting it out,’ but we went for it anyway and peeled down the front.

“I was hoping he’d see me coming around and push off to go for Rónan [Kelleher] and I’d go through and have an easier set-up for the next phase. But he gets a shoulder on me, I play it to Ronan, he makes a good carry up the field but we were just slow getting to that breakdown.

“We know how good Luke Cowan-Dickie is at getting to the ball and we miss the first cleanout on it. I got back off the ground, I’m a bit late, but the damage is done at that stage.

“If we had got the ball away there, we would have been in a really good spot. After a linebreak, teams tend to get very narrow and honeypot back towards the ball where there’s normally a lot of danger. We were hoping to play with width and we might have had them a few phases later if we had held onto the ball.

“That bit of missed detail and accuracy is something that kept them in it longer than we should have.”

We also saw Conan’s passing skills used on second phase of a Leinster lineout play in this game.

“It’s always great to get your hands on the ball in those set plays where you have options.

“I just love when the coaches say I’m going to be in the centre of a move, you love when they’re making moves around your position.”

Base of the scrum

Conan has been increasingly active off the base of the Leinster scrum this season, using his dynamic carrying but also passing at times.

“There has been a big change in the work at the base of the scrum,” he says. “A lot of that is down to Robin McBryde, who has come in and said, ‘We’re underutilising this, if you do it in a certain way, you have a free run at the opposition 10 and it’s an easy few metres.’

“It’s something I love doing because it gets the ball in your hands, you know you’ll have lots of time and running full pace at someone.

“We used to just do it predominantly for exits but now we do it anywhere on the pitch, which is great. 

“If you look at someone like Conor Murray, he goes really hard at the opposition number eight and nine at the base of the scrum, so we practise a lot.

“Myself, Caelan [Doris], and the scrum-halves, get together after training, go through the plays, get someone to put on a bit of pressure and train it as if it’s a match-scenario. It’s a cheap turnover if the opposition scrum-half can get into you there.

“It’s definitely something that we’ve spent a lot more time on recently and I feel it’s a great string to my bow and for Caelan and the other guys playing at number eight.”