Analysis: Why Jack Conan deserves to start for Ireland next month
Jack Conan has had a relatively tough time establishing himself as an international rugby player.
The Leinster number eight made his Ireland debut against Scotland in a 2015 Rugby World Cup warm up game but has made just eight appearances for the national team since then, four of which have come against Tier 2 opposition.
Provincial teammate Tadhg Furlong has played 26 matches for Joe Schmidt's side over that same time span despite making his international debut against Wales two weeks after Conan had received his first start against Scotland.
There's 108 days between Conan and Furlong in age and the Wexford prop had to wait until a year after his debut before he could succeed 36-year-old Mike Ross in the Ireland front-row, while Conan had to bide his time patiently behind 2016 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee Jamie Heaslip and 2016 IRUPA Players' Player of the Year CJ Stander.
The presence of both Heaslip and Stander goes some ways to explaining why Conan has just nine caps compared to Furlong's 26 caps but this may be the season where the Bray number eight closes the gap on his Munster equivalent. He said as much at the start of the season.
"I'm feeling fit now and I'm feeling good now," Conan said at an eir Sport launch.
"I probably had some better all-round performances last year defensively, as well as attacking, because it was something I needed to work on, but the gap is closing.
"I think there's a lot of room for improvement and I'm looking forward to being 100% fit and having confidence about myself going into the new season."
Conan has started six games for Leinster already this season and has played the full 80 minutes in his last four consecutive matches. Attack and defence were the two areas of his game that he was looking to improve upon this season and he's certainly made some strong stides already during the first two months of the new campaign with 276 metres off 79 carries, 16 defenders beaten and 64 tackles made.
So @CJStander was a winger when he joined Munster? 🚀🚀🚀😀
The Ireland international scored this 80-metre wonder try in his first game at Thomond Park v Glasgow in 2012! The Warriors are back at Thomond on Saturday in the PRO14 with a 5.15pm kick-off! #MUNvGLA #SUAF 🔴 pic.twitter.com/wlGN3oJr8P
— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) October 22, 2018
By comparison CJ Stander has ran for 132 metres off 69 carries, has beaten six defenders and has made 61 tackles across five games. Stander has had a better tackle rate but Conan is averaging nearly twice as many metres as him with 3.49 metres per carry in comparison to Stander's 1.91 metres.
The South African was a dynamic wrecking ball when he first came to Munster but has slowed up considerably as a destructive ball carrier with just 14 metres off 14 carries against Gloucester last weekend and just 20 metres off 18 carries against Exeter the weekend before.
Defences have started to figure out how to defend the bustling number eight with many defences committing multiple tacklers early and often just before he gets the ball in order to stop him from gathering momentum and getting over the gainline.
Meanwhile Conan has done an excellent job this season at making metres after contact and it was his footwork against Toulouse on Sunday that single-handedly led to Sean O'Brien's try before the end of the first-half.
The agility and footwork of the Leinster forwards has been a noticeable improvement in the Leinster attack over the last few seasons and the players and staff attribute a lot of the strides in this area to contact coach Hugh Hogan.
Conan has scored 13 tries in his last 43 games for Leinster so he's certainly been one of the province's leading lights in this department but defence, and specifically defensive workrate, were two key areas he wanted to work on after his summer tour of Australia with Ireland.
"My workrate in defence is something I was told I could work on by my coaches," added Conan.
"I've been trying to put a lot of effort and thought into that and I think it's something that has paid dividends over the last few months but it's just something I'll be looking to grow on as well.
"I don't think my role will change massively from what it's been like over the last few years but I think it's just becoming an all-round better player and when I'm in those collisions to make sure I'm making an impact in my tackles."
With Leinster leading late in the game we can see Conan stay with Toulouse scrum-half Sebastien Bezy after the ball had been offloaded before making the tackle and rolling back to the pillar position where he gets in line to make the next tackle.
Toulouse ultimately avoid him and pick and drive to the right where second-row Florian Verhaeghe is brought down by a combination of Jack McGrath and Devin Toner before Conan blows over the top of replacement prop David Ainu'u to help turn the ball over which leads to a Leinster penalty moments later.
The loss to Toulouse was a tough one to take for Leinster given that they had led by as much as six points approaching the final 10 minutes but the match also served as a good example of Conan's improvements this season.
House of Rugby co-host and former Munster centre Barry Murphy also mentioned Conan as a possible bolter to start in the Irish back-row for the New Zealand game at Lansdowne Road next month.
"I think Conan is playing particularly well at eight," said Murphy on the latest episode of SportsJOE's new rugby podcast.
"He got that try at the weekend and just with how he's played the last few weeks he's got to be very high up in Joe Schmidt's thoughts. [Elsewhere] I think [Peter] O'Mahony is looking fitter and stronger than he ever has before. He's put in a really tough pre-season according to the coaches down there and he's really physical at the moment so I don't think I'd leave him out."
Fellow co-host Andrew Trimble added: "Sean O'Brien could get back in now that he's got a bit of gametime. He could start one more game and get another 80 under his belt and then Joe loves him doesn't he?"