Jack Conan has practically been through the whole gamut of emotions during this Rugby World Cup, and that is without getting to play during the pool stages so far.
A foot injury curtailed Conan’s involvement at the 2019 Rugby World Cup to just one appearance off the bench against Scotland. He feared the worst when he picked up a similar injury in the lead up to this year’s tournament in France.
He tore some ligaments in his right foot during the Bank of Ireland Nations Series win over Italy in August. During his recovery period, he had some bone bruising to deal with, which delayed his return and had him thinking his World Cup was possibly over.
“Three or four weeks ago I thought I was going home,” admitted the 39-times capped number 8, speaking at Ireland’s team base in Tours.
“So to get pulled aside (by the coaches) and for them to say, ‘look, we’re going to keep you on, we know you’re going to get better, we’re going to give you the time you need’, filled me with a lot of confidence.
“It took the edge off me a little bit. I was able to relax and just focus on getting better and not be worrying that they’re going to send me home or anything like that.
“To be able to turn it around with the work of all the physios, the docs and stuff, they’ve done an incredible amount of work with me.
“I’m unbelievably grateful. I’m training away, feeling good and just ready to add my bit of value that I can.”
Conan is hoping to be involved on Saturday night as Ireland clash again with Scotland. Pool B is set for an exciting conclusion, as one of South Africa (15 points), Ireland (14) and Scotland (10) will lose out in the race to reach the quarter-finals.
The Wicklow man is admittedly not a good spectator, and the Stade de France showdown with the Springboks really put his nerves to the test. He found it ‘pretty hellish’ to be watching on from the stands, sitting there like a ‘nervous wreck’.
He comes up against Scotland’s best regularly in the blue of his province and the green of his country. He also played in all three British & Irish Lions Tests against the ‘Boks in 2021, lining out with the likes of Finn Russell, Duhan van der Merwe, Ali Price, Hamish Watson and Rory Sutherland.
Conan also got to experience Gregor Townsend’s coaching of the attack during that Lions tour, so it is shaping up to be a ‘huge test’ and one that he would ‘really relish the opportunity’ to play in. He acknowledged:
Scotland are a quality side. They throw the ball around, they play wide-wide a lot. They’ve got a great forward pack, good scrum. So we know they’re going to test us all over the park.
“They’ve got great athletes, I think they’re playing particularly well. They had a good win against Tonga, who are a tough outfit to play against. It was touch and go in the first 20 or 30 minutes when we played Tonga.
“It would be great (to play), my one cap in a World Cup so far was against Scotland so it will be good to add another one. I’m grateful the coaches were patient with me, gave me the opportunity to train away and get right again.”
Ireland will not be distracted by the pool permutations or possible quarter-final opponents. Even if they go behind to an early try, as they did when they played Scotland last March, they can bank on the resilience and mental strength that has carried them through a record run of 16 straight wins.
Asked about how they have moved on from beating the ‘Boks and built towards getting the job done this weekend, the 31-year-old explained: “Every single game we play, we’ve just been ‘next match’ focused. It’s not about anything that comes after that.
“All of our energy, all of our thought processes now are going into Scotland and another performance that we have to produce. We obviously know them incredibly well from playing them in the Six Nations and playing them four years ago in the World Cup.
“We’re unbelievably excited to face them again, they’re a great outfit, and we know we’ll have to be at our best again.”
Ireland have held the edge over the Scots, winning eight successive Tests between 2018 and this year. Their Celtic rivals are always dangerous opponents though, famously denying Ireland a Triple Crown at Croke Park in 2010, and winning the 2017 Six Nations opener with a thrilling three-try first half performance.
Conan has a 100% record against Scotland with six wins out of six. He has fond memories of his try at Murrayfield seven months ago which put Ireland just one victory away from the Grand Slam.
However, Ireland cannot rely on those past performances and history repeating itself, with the Leinster back rower warning: “I think it can be a benefit (playing opponents regularly), but it can be a hindrance as well. That’s where you’ve just got to make sure you take nothing for granted.
“You assume nothing, you get back to basics, you make sure you’re across your detail, you’re across the way you’re training, the way we want to play the game. So it’s not about, ‘aw, we know Scotland, we’ve played them more, we don’t have to think about it as much’.
“If anything, these are the moments where you have to double down on the basics and be ever better at it. Again, we won’t take anything for granted. We have to be a step above even what we were against South Africa.”