Andrew Conway on "tough" Andy Farrell call that may have saved his rugby career
"Your personal life is more important than your professional career."
Andrew Conway has always come across as a level-headed chap, even in the cut and thrust of a cup run or Six Nations campaign, but a season of what many would equate to injury hell has given him even more perspective.
Had Conway been fully fit, he would have been in Ireland's training squad for the World Cup. There's a good chance he would have made the final cut, too.
As it stands, though, a knee injury that eventually required two surgeries torpedoed 2022/23 for him and put him back down that Test pecking order. Andy Farrell extended an invitation for him to do a week of his Munster pre-season with the Ireland squad, up in Dublin, but he will be like the rest of us - cheering on Ireland - when his teammates head to France, next month.
During a chat with us, ahead of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic, Conway demurred when asked for World Cup predictions, noting that there are 'six or seven teams in the mix'. "I don't think we've ever been in as good a place going into World Cup [as we are now]," he said.
"We'd won the Grand Slam in 2018, but we had a poor 2019, you know, and that kind of took the wind out of our sails a bit, and confidence wasn't where we were hoping it would be. That probably passed us by a small bit.
"We were still relying on what we did in 2018 to get us over the line in 2019. Rugby moved so quickly, and the game changes so much. There's always little rule tweaks in terms of say, the 50:22 rule, which changes the defence and changes the backfield. The coaches and the players that can adapt to that the quickest are usually well in the mix and we've shown that we can.
"We've got probably the best coach in the world and we're kind of setting the standard in terms of how rugby should be played."
He feels for France outhalf Romain Ntamack after the "cruel" blow of an ACL [knee] injury just a month before the tournament but still reckons Les Bleus are a big threat. New Zealand and South Africa are mentioned, too, Scotland 'are looking good' and he includes Wales and England in the don't write them off category.
Andrew Conway on the comeback trail
Rugby often has a funny (and dispassionate) way of reminding players that the game moves ceaselessly on without them.
Back in March 2022, Andrew Conway had scored five tries in five Ireland games, that season, including another rip-roaring Dublin win over the All Blacks. He was one of Munster's most reliable and valuable players and had taken on a leadership role within the main group.
Then came the injury set-backs. After a win over England, in Twickenham, Conway played at the tail-end of the season them missed the tour to New Zealand as he needed to get the knee sorted. In truth, it had been troubling him during that Six Nations, which Ireland ended up as Triple Crown winners.
"You've got to trust [the coaches] that what they're doing for you is both in the best interest of what the national team wants, and for you, personally. They're not going to put me in a [tough] position," he says.
"Andy took me out of the Scotland match, during that Six Nations. We beat England in Twickenham and then we were playing Scotland, the next week.
"My knee was in a good bit of trouble at that stage, but I was just in that mindset that, you know, nothing was going to stop me getting on the pitch in that Scottish match... On the Sunday after the England match I came back into camp and the knee was in a terrible way, to be fair.
"As an athlete, you can get yourself into these places that you can dig in. So deep, at times. Now you're going to pay a price for it, after the fact, but that's not what you're thinking there and then. Andy kind of pulled me aside on the Sunday and said, 'Listen, your knee is not good. We're putting into a hole, and we don't know how deep it is'.
"And I pleaded with them to let me play. I've never got so emotional over a selection decision in my life. Reflecting on it, it was because I was so deep in my mindset of how deep I was digging to actually, physically be able to get out... to not just play a match but to get through trainings and to recover that I was in a really heightened state of just like digging in. Not accepting that my body was letting me down...
"When I look back on that, if I played in that Scottish match that could have ended my career. The knee was that bad and he understood what was going on. He understood what I was doing, and he understood that it wasn't in my best interest and pulled me out."
Andrew Conway eager to get back into competitive action
14 months on, Andrew Conway has not played a competitive game. Even when he was doing the Budweiser Combine promotional event, he could not take a full part in the drills and running challenges.
While he can see the light at the end of the comeback tunnel, Conway became a father, to young Hailey, and has got to spend more time with her, and his wife Lizzie, than if he had been fully pitched into the day-to-day of rugby.
"To have been around for my, for my daughter's first 18 months, without any real time away, has been a massive positive. For us as professional athletes... I know Pete [O'Mahony] actually talked on it recently, about being away from his kids and how tough it is. His kids are getting to an age now where they're asking where daddy is, and stuff. My daughter isn't at that age yet but I've not missed any time with her. Whenever I look back on it, in years and years, I've been very fortunate that those two things aligned."
The 32-year-old cannot wait to tear back into the new season and confidently states that he has 'jumped straight back into it at a higher level than I've ever been at before'. He is still getting World Cup questions but the likes of Calvin Nash and Jacob Stockdale [if he misses the first cut] are probably the safer bets should a back three pull up before the tournament gets going.
Conway met up, recently, with Dublin footballer Dean Rock and the multi-talented Sarah Rowe to be put through their American Football paces ahead of the College Football Classic, which features Notre Dame taking on Navy at Aviva Stadium, this Saturday.
The Dubliner is like so many sports fans from Ireland, in that he has more than a passing interest in the game and really gets invested when the Super Bowl race heats up. That interest has been heightened by following the Netflix show 'Quarterback', which featured the game's top QB, right now and over the past five years, Patrick Mahomes.
"I know that a lot of Irish people are massive, massive American football fans and both college football and NFL. College football, over there is wild. It's crazy how big it is and how important it is to every part of the country, and how passionate they are."
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