Following an injury-hampered Rugby World Cup when he made just two appearances off the bench, Jack Conan is back in the Ireland number 8 jersey and ready to make the most of it.
Conan was part of the six-two split last week on the bench, enjoying the collective impact that they made during the final quarter in Marseille. Now he is gearing up for his first international start since last August’s Bank of Ireland Nations Series win over Italy.
It is the same opposition for Ireland’s first match at the Aviva Stadium in eight Tests, and the Bray native is determined to take his chance after the door opened for a rejigged back row due to Peter O’Mahony’s calf injury.
Speaking earlier this week about his desire to keep improving and increasing his match minutes, he said: “I was unfortunate with knocks and stuff over the World Cup (campaign) that I didn’t get as much game-time as I would have liked. That’s what it was.
“Now it’s just about taking opportunities when they come and even now, and I’ve been about a few years at this stage, you still want to have those conversations (with coaches) because you still want to get better.
“You never want to just take what you are good at and not worry about what you need to improve on.
“Whether it’s about having conversations with Faz (Andy Farrell) or Paulie (O’Connell) or Catty (Mike Catt), Si (Easterby), or Fogs (John Fogarty), or even Jayo (Cowman) and Rudds (Ciaran Ruddock) in the S&C department…I think it’s always important to have those conversations and make sure you’re pushing in the right direction.
“I think the standard of player is too high here for anyone to say, ‘yeah, I don’t need to have those conversations, or to focus on what I need to improve on, I’m happy with where I’m at’.
“Because when you’re not on it, there’s so many good players in the squad, and who aren’t in the squad, especially in the back row, who could come in and do a job.
“You’ve seen in the past that Faz is more than happy to make calls like that, so you need to be on it when you get your opportunity, whether it’s going to be 16-odd minutes off the bench against France, or whatever it be for this weekend.
“That’s just the standard of the squad, it’s pushing everyone along the whole time. It’s a good place to be, but you need to be on it.”
A record away victory over France, with five tries scored, was a real statement of intent from the defending Guinness Men’s Six Nations champions. Nonetheless, as assistant coach Mike Catt mentioned, there is ‘always something to work on so we’ll keep striving for our potential’.
Having been involved in two Grand Slam-winning campaigns, including all five of last year’s matches, Conan knows what it takes to build title-winning momentum. The squad is clearly eager to be better again for what will be a stern challenge presented by Italy.
“It was a fantastic start (against France), exactly what we wanted and needed. But I think it’s one of those things, you can’t get too carried away with it either,” explained the 31-year-old back rower.
“Obviously great to go over there and put in a record performance, and go to somewhere different than Paris and get the win. We were pretty happy with a lot of aspects of the game.
“But it’s just a stepping stone into this weekend and the Italy game on Sunday. We know we’ll have to progress and get better as the competition goes on, even though we started off pretty well and lads are happy in general.
“There’s always room to improve and we can’t take it that that’s going to be our best performance. We need to push on and try to be better again. Italy will definitely show a different challenge on the weekend.”
There is a real positivity surrounding the Ireland camp at the moment, no doubt helped by quickly getting back to winning ways after the World Cup, and in some style. The newer players are making an impression, with Conan saying Marseille was ‘just a snippet of how good we can be’.
He gave a ringing endorsement of his Leinster colleague Joe McCarthy, the Guinness Six Nations player-of-the-match from last Friday, and his ability to ‘just flick that switch’ and impose his power and physicality on opponents, particularly at rucks and mauls.
Backing the 22-year-old second row for a big future in the green jersey, he quipped: “Ah, I just get out of the big man’s way when he’s wrecking people and trying to destroy mauls and things!
“He’s a good man for standing on your feet and stuff in training – so I can only imagine what he’s like when he’s hammering through teams and mauls and stuff! To be fair to Joe, he’s done unbelievable well for a man of his age.
“And I think he just adds something so different with his physique and his style of play. He’s just a big bruiser, isn’t he? Just lumping into people and he’s a great bloke as well.
It’s funny, you see Joe on the pitch and he’s causing havoc and just destroying things, and then he’s just such a placid and chilled guy in training.
“He’s very jovial and has the craic and stuff and he’s just able to flick that switch and go out and destroy rucks and mauls. I think he’s someone who has come on leaps and bounds in the last few months.
“It’s a joy to see. He’s an incredibly hard working fella, so I’m sure the sky’s the limit for him and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what he is capable of.”
Conan has played Italy six times previously, making four starts. The foot injury he sustained against the Azzurri last time out took the shine off a 33-17 triumph at the start of Ireland’s World Cup warm-up period.
He was also in the starting XV for the hard-fought 34-20 victory in Rome from twelve months ago, when Italy made it an uncomfortable day for the visitors with first half tries from Stephen Varney and Pierre Bruno, and some prolonged bouts of attacking pressure.
Under new head coach Gonzalo Quesada, Italy picked up a losing bonus point against England last weekend and will be relishing their shot at the table toppers, despite unfortunately losing back rowers Lorenzo Cannone, Sebastian Negri, and Edoardo Iachizzi to injury.
“I think to be fair to Italy, they’re a quality side and they play a really good brand of rugby,” acknowledged Conan. “They throw it around a lot, they’re not afraid to play out from anywhere.
“It’s definitely a different challenge than France were last weekend, because they have probably gone back to being a bit more pragmatic and kicking a lot more.
“We know that Italy will take any opportunity to play when they can, so we’re nearly expecting a tougher defensive challenge this weekend than we did previously.
“We know we’re going to have to be on it from minute one. Italy play with so much passion and emotion, and now they’re bringing that accuracy as well which you might have said in the past that they lacked.
“But they’re so close to getting a few big scalps, they really are. You can see it when they play, and they were unlucky last weekend against England. We have to do everything in our power to make sure we’re on it and ready because that can’t be us that they do it to.”