The rise of Jack Conan is one of the great stories to emerge from the Lions. Called into the Irish Six Nations squad for the suspended Peter O’Mahony, he subsequently made his first appearance for Ireland since the 2019 RWC. Many had ruled the 29-year-old out, with the emergence of Caelan Doris at Leinster signifying a potential changing of the guard. The future looked bright for Doris for both Leinster and Ireland. Yet, as we all know, injuries in sport offer opportunities. This opportunity Conan took with both hands, as he put in an incredible final performance against England, setting up a try and scoring another. In turn, he booked his place on the plane to South Africa. We all thought it would stop there but now he isn’t just a Lion. He is a Test Lion.
Jack Conan like all young Leinster number 8s had the title of ‘the next Jamie Heaslip.’ Playing Irish U20s in 2012 with fellow Lions Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, and Tadhg Beirne, it was a new generation of young Irish talent. Conan had to remain patient for his Leinster debut mainly because of the competition in the back row as Jamie Heaslip had no thoughts of hanging up the boots just yet. His debut came in February 2014 against the Cardiff Blues with his international debut coming away in the 2014 Six Nations. The early career-defining moment came in January 2015 with a man of the match performance against Ulster. In the game he carried 40 metres, something that would be repeated on the biggest stage in a red jersey.
As the 2015 Six Nations approached, Conan had caught the eye of Joe Schmidt. The steady rise, however, didn’t all go to plan. Conan didn’t play in that Six Nations and despite making his debut in a 2015 RWC warm-up game against Scotland he failed to make the World Cup squad. Injuries, the emergence of new talent, and a lack of form meant Conan’s Irish dream was fading away.
Although a golden opportunity arose due to the 2017 Lions Tour. The likes of CJ Stander and co were away on Lions duty providing space in the national side for the 2017 Ireland Tour to USA and Japan. A few impressive outings once again showed Jack Conan is a man who takes every opportunity that comes his way. When the 2019 RWC came round, he made sure this time he was on the plane. This time he played a key role in the Ireland back row, far from being someone who was in Japan to make up the numbers. As the rise of Jack Conan continued.
British and Irish Lions
For people who haven’t followed Jack Conan’s career, his recent performances for the Lions may have come as a surprise. For those who know him, however, they have been merely a given. Conan is a skilful number 8 who uses his footwork to gain extra post-contact metres, as well as being a fast and elusive player, exactly what was required to challenge South Africa in the wider channels. Completely different to what Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell went for with CJ Stander at number 8 (Who is very direct!). Conan stuck to his values as a player and didn’t change his unique style of play. The rise of Jack Conan, therefore, did stall but it certainly didn’t stop.
Despite only earning 17 caps for Ireland, he is now set for a second Lions Test cap and was one of the standout performers in the first Test. On tour, he has made 59 carries, 16 more than the next best (Duhan van der Merwe with 43). He also has made the most post-contact metres of any forward with 136. In the first Test, he made 48 metres from 12 carries. It is also the most metres made by a Lion forward in a Test since 2009. Guess who had that record? Jamie Heaslip. Sport can be funny sometimes.
A famous boxing analogy is that styles make fights. For rugby it is the same. The style required to beat the Springbok is a number 8 who isn’t just a direct bruiser. Conan has found his style hasn’t suited Ireland in the past yet it is the style vital in order for success on the 2021 Lions Tour. Although he might not go down as an Irish legend, his Lions legacy will certainly live on.
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