The Ireland back-row on his shock at being named in the Lions squad and the change in his approach to rugby

Lions No 8 Jack Conan: “It was like an out-of-body experience”

Jack Conan was at a set of traffic lights when it happened. He was making the short drive from the Dublin hotel where he and his Leinster team-mates were quarantining, following their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against La Rochelle, to the province’s training facility at University College Dublin. Then, with the lights on red, bam!

“I was convulsing, the shaking took over my whole body,” the 28-year-old Leinster and Ireland No 8 says. “It wasn’t a feeling I’ve ever had in my life. It was like an out-of-body experience.”

What sparked such a response? Hearing Jason Leonard read out his name as part of the British & Irish Lions 2021 squad.

He had been watching the announcement in the hotel car park. He’d listened to the likes of Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton answer questions, but as the presentation started to run behind schedule he realised he needed to head off to make his time slot for a rehab session. Hence how he came to be sitting at a red light when his name sandwiched that of Tadhg Beirne and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

“I should have been more patient! I wasn’t expecting it at all, so when I heard my name being announced I was shaking. It was a surreal moment.”

He rang his girlfriend first to tell her the news but couldn’t get through as she was busy at work. His parents got a call next. He hadn’t told them he’d received the email saying he was in contention – he didn’t want to get their hopes up and then not get picked – so it came as a surprise to them too.

Lions No 8 Jack Conan

Jack Conan scores for the Lions against the Sharks (Getty Images)

“I rang my dad and he didn’t have a clue! I was shouting down the phone, ‘Are you watching?’ but he had the radio on in the background. He was delighted when I told him. My mum was a bit more on the ball and she was in tears.”

The joy of Conan in being selected would have been a stark contrast to the acute disappointment felt by those Leinster team-mates who missed out, like Garry Ringrose, James Ryan and, of course, Johnny Sexton.

Yet Conan says they were some of the first to send messages of congratulations. “It says a lot about the character of those lads to get on the phone and wish you well when they’re hurting.”

Conan was in his mid-teens when the Lions last toured South Africa. He has vivid memories of watching the matches, of seeing Ugo Monye racing away to score an intercept try in the third Test, of Tom Croft – scorer of two tries in the opening Test – playing a big role, of Brian O’Driscoll “leading from the front”.

Twelve years on, he is one of those chosen to represent the best of Britain and Ireland against the world champions.

Selection for the squad itself was hugely competitive; selection on the tour is even more so. Yet Conan is used to fighting for his place; he is not one of the tourists accustomed to being first choice, who could be unsettled in an environment where he’s not number one.

With Ireland, he’s had some serious competition to contend with – it was only when CJ Stander was on the last Lions tour and Jamie Heaslip was injured that he first got a run of Tests at No 8.

With Leinster, the depth of back-row talent available is well documented, and new arrivals come through the Dublin schools system each year. In 2020, while Conan was injured, Caelan Doris came to the fore in blue and green.

When Doris was then sidelined with concussion symptoms, Conan came back into the Test mix – his performances in the latter part of the Six Nations no doubt enhanced his Lions claim. Being familiar with such competitive environments should stand him in good stead on tour.

“I’m very fortunate playing for Leinster that the standard of back-rowers is incredibly high. When everyone is fit, we have seven international back-rowers, so you know you have to be at your best every day, training well to get selected. It drives you on and makes you better.”

Conan has never faced the Boks but he’s one of four Lions who were part of the Ireland U20 team to beat South Africa in South Africa at the Junior World Cup nine years ago – Tadhgs Furlong and Beirne as well as Iain Henderson were the others involved in a 23-19 win – so he is aware of the physicality that is an indelible hallmark of the game there.

Still, Conan also recognises the need to marry a more expansive style with physicality and set-piece strength.

“You have to have the balance of both. South Africa are World Cup champions; they’re a massively physical side, with some serious units, especially in the pack. They’ll look to maul and lineout and scrum; it’s a massive challenge with physicality at the forefront.

“Just speaking on my own behalf, any time I get the ball in a bit of space, in wide channels, is very exciting. I always want to take people on using footwork. Sam Simmonds, too, has had a fantastic year for Exeter, he broke the record for tries (in a Premiership season).

“I definitely prefer more time on the ball so you can express yourself and that suits me. I’m excited by that challenge and that style of play.”

Jack Conan faces lots of competition at Leinster (Sportsfile/Getty Images)

Whether tight battles or free-flowing affairs, over the past few months Conan has been enjoying rugby more full stop. His time at the 2019 Rugby World Cup was cut short by a foot injury, then a few matches into his return last autumn a neck injury ruled him out for another couple of months. It’s only since the turn of the year that he’s been able to get decent game time under his belt and he has returned with a change in approach.

“Unfortunately for the guts of 18 months I had a few serious injuries, which I’ve bounced back from, but there were a few challenging times. I thought to myself while I was away from the game that I can spend too long worrying about it and that takes away from performances. I’m blessed and lucky to do what I do, to play rugby for a living, so I want to enjoy and appreciate it more.

“It didn’t come automatically; I put more pressure on myself to come back to the level I was at before I was injured, which was never happening, so I struggled with it. Now thankfully, a few months on, I know how to enjoy it more and take pressure off myself.

“When I’m at my best I’m relaxed, I enjoy playing with a smile on my face. That’s my mindset. I know my detail and what I need to do, so I go out and enjoy it.”

This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s July 2021 edition.

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