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Saturday 20 October 2018

Jack is keen to become the ace card

Conan primed for Munster battle

THE BIT BETWEEN HIS TEETH: Jack Conan is determined to make an impact in Saturday’s PRO14 semi-final clash against Munster at the RDS. Photo: Sportsfile
THE BIT BETWEEN HIS TEETH: Jack Conan is determined to make an impact in Saturday’s PRO14 semi-final clash against Munster at the RDS. Photo: Sportsfile

The heads shake in sympathy for others when the Leinster back-row squad is thumbed through.

All may not be as it seems. Leo Cullen started this season with seven Ireland international loose forwards.

Jamie Heaslip has retired. Jordi Murphy is one or two matches away from the fondest farewell, taking the total down to five.

Sean O'Brien has been put on lay away and Josh van der Flier has also taken a knee for the season.

A deeper dig reveals how O'Brien has been seriously undermined by injury over the last five seasons.

He played six matches for the province this season and completed 80 minutes twice for a total contribution of 343 minutes.

Last season, there were 487 minutes worked through, O'Brien seeing the finishing line once from eight hit-outs.

Inadequate

In 2015-2016, the Tullow Tank started four times for Leinster and came off the bench twice for just 319 minutes all in.

In 2014-2015, there were six appearances for 487 minutes, including 100 minutes in the European Cup semi-final extra-time defeat to Toulon.

In 2013-2014, there were six starts from eight caps for 386 minutes. Another inadequate return.

You have to travel all the way back in time to the 2012-2013 season when he dished up 11 starts for a robust 706 minutes.

Based on the evidence, the likelihood is that he will be wrapped in cotton wool for next season in the lead-in to the Rugby World Cup.

The unbridled physicality with which the 31-year-old plays the game has taken a heavy toll on his body.

All the while, the pain for O'Brien has made for gains for Murphy, Van der Flier, Max Deegan, Josh Murphy, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.

In the last month, the ravage of injury to Ruddock convinced coaches Cullen and Stuart Lancaster that it would be better to move Scott Fardy from the middle row to the back row for the business end of the Champions Cup.

There are not many out there who would have offered Fardy, Leavy and Murphy as Leinster's big-game trio at the start of the year.

Next season, Leinster will be down their British and Irish Lions number eight, as they have been this season, and their Champions Cup-winning number eight.

Five years from now, it is anyone's guess who Leinster's first-choice back-row will be.

Currently, the most stable leg of the three positions is Dan Leavy, the openside crunching out the highest number of tackles (20) and carries (17) in Bilbao.

For Murphy to grasp the number eight shirt, Conan had to fall to injury and never quite fully recover his best form.

"To be honest, I was disappointed, but I hadn't been performing to the point where I probably deserved to start," said Conan.

"The only game that I did get to start in was the Connacht game which, obviously, wasn't a glowing audition.

"I was disappointed considering how much I had played in the group stages and leading up to that.

"But I think you have to swallow your pride and get on with it.

"It's all about the collective and the team. You can't be sitting around, sulking and feeling bad for yourself."

The grind of the Champions Cup could well open the way for Conan to retake the shirt as Leinster look to freshen up for the PRO14 League semi-final against Munster on Saturday.

Pressure

"It's easy to turn the page when it's Munster you're playing against," he said.

"I think there's always added emotion, added pressure when you're playing in a derby game - Munster in the RDS for the first time in a good few years as well. I think that makes it even more special."

There is the collective combat and there are the individual battles.

Conan would embrace a shot at CJ Stander in what could be a means of putting his hand up for Ireland's three-test tour to Australia.

"Every time you're playing another province, you know you're playing against someone who is potentially a step ahead of you when it comes to getting a green jersey, so there's massive pressure ahead of these games."

With Heaslip retired and Murphy on the move, Conan has to let Cullen see he can be the present and the future.

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