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Wednesday 1 March 2017

Conan fuels the fire within

Number eight wants to stay with Blues despite Heaslip's durability

Jack Conan. Pic: Sportsfile
Jack Conan. Pic: Sportsfile

The worst thing you can be in life is pigeon-holed, put in a box out of which there appears to be no escape.

Jack Conan is a ball carrier with few equals in Ireland. His problem is Jamie Heaslip, the most durable number eight in world rugby, stands in his way.

There is only so long you can be labelled as the understudy. It would be enough to make anyone question whether he should stay or go.

Conan doesn't see it that way. For now.

"For me, when I was growing up, I didn't want to a 'professional' rugby player, I wanted to be a 'Leinster' rugby player.

Jamie Heaslip at Leinster squad training in Belfield. Pic: Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip at Leinster squad training in Belfield. Pic: Sportsfile

"I am very loyal to this club," he said.

"They have stuck by me at times and given me an opportunity when they didn't necessarily need to.

"For the moment, I am here and giving my all and see what happens down the line."

Heaslip is the immovable object and the elephant in the room of any conversation about the number eight shirt as evidenced by his nomination for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2016.

"Look, Jamie playing at his best makes me better," he said. "Whether it be with Leinster or with Ireland, he has been absolutely outstanding.

sets the bar

"There is no bitterness there at all.

"He sets the bar for the back-rowers in the club and we are all trying to match it."

Conan even broke it down better than Heaslip's agent could have.

"He has the ability. He has a wide skill set.

"He can be a seven and make turnovers. He makes more than I would.

"He is good at the passing game. He is good defensively, has a good all-round game.

"You can put him anywhere really across the back-row."

The problem for Conan is that Heaslip never strays from the middle of the last row.

Then, there has been the damage done to his ankles that have stalled any rhythm gained from regular rugby.

The fact Conan made his international debut against Scotland in a World Cup warm-up in August 2015 tells you everything about the tribulations he has encountered since then.

"More than anything, it can be mentally tough to deal with at times," he admitted.

"My first season, I had a good year and played consistently throughout. I won a cap for Ireland.

"It wasn't my greatest performance but from that in itself I would have learned a lot.

"I was disappointed to get the injuries but I feel even now that I'm better for it and I think I am mentally stronger and physically more developed."

Leinster will have to put the harsh individual and collective lessons they learned against Munster into what they do about Ulster coming to town tomorrow afternoon.

The fall guys of poor discipline and poor decision-making will have to be raised from the floor to the ceiling.

"It is not about experience. It is decision-making and being a smart rugby player," said Conan.

"It not necessarily about what age you are or how many games you have played.

"Indiscipline is a mind-set. You don't need to have a 100 caps for Ireland or Leinster to know it.

"The disappointing thing is, in that regard, we gave them easy outs in their 22m and easy access into ours.

"You know, good teams will punish you and Munster did."

Ulster are not short of competitors in their back row.

"They might not have as many internationals as we have but they still have a good pedigree," he said.

"Sean Reidy won his first cap back in the summer, Chris Henry has a good few caps for Ireland. Iain Henderson is obviously a fantastic player and can play in the back-row and second-row.

"They are not lacking in talent."

The sight of Reidy wearing the number eight in South Africa must have hurt.

"There are times, even over the November internationals, when you see lads getting caps.

"Am I envious of them? Absolutely. That was me at one stage getting my first cap.

"Maybe if I was fit, things would have worked out differently and I would have played.

"But that is not something you can hold onto," he said.

"I would like to use that as fuel to the fire and something that pushes me on to be better and drives my want to get back in the green jersey."

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