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19th Apr 2018

Andrew Conway: Missing the Grand Slam was tough but there is something different about Munster in Europe

Jack O'Toole

Munster winger Andrew Conway has said that it was difficult to miss out on a Grand Slam winning campaign with Ireland in this year’s Six Nations but that he is determined to finish his season on a high with his province in the Champions Cup.

Conway missed Ireland’s entire Six Nations campaign with a knee injury earlier in the season but returned to score the match winning try in Munster’s one-point Champions Cup quarter-final win over three-time champions Toulon last month.

The match marked Conway’s first game back for Munster since January and the try lifted the club to a dramatic victory after Chris Ashton had put Toulon in the lead with a brilliant score of his own with just over 15 minutes to play.

The sensational finish was instinctive for Conway and helped soften the blow from missing out on a Grand Slam winning campaign with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

“It was great,” said Conway at a Munster Rugby press conference.

“Missing out on things like the Grand Slam, pending selection obviously, is tough and at the time you are watching the lads playing massive international matches that you might have been involved in, again pending selection, but you can only look at these things for so long.

“Again you change the page and there is a new challenge and at this time of the year you have knock-out rugby if you get out of your group, so you miss out on a few big games internationally, but soon after there is a quarter-final to play in, so it is great to play in these big games.

“That is why we all play rugby for, so that is why we train so hard and we want to get out of our group, especially getting a home quarter-final.

“Playing in Thomond Park in Europe is just different. You have all been there, there is just something different about it, so they are the big days you play for.”

Conway has had some experience of the big European games for Munster in the Champions Cup but he adds that it’s just a different buzz when you win as opposed to the deflation you feel when you lose in the tournament’s knockout stages.

The 26-year-old Dubliner moved to Munster from Leinster in 2013, and while he readily admits that he is not a native of his adopted province, he knows what it’s like to experience both winning and losing with Munster in Europe, both as a player and at one point in time as a fan.

“It would be mad, I am not from here obviously, but I went to the 2006 and 2008 finals with my dad,” replied Conway when asked what it would mean to him to play in a Champions Cup final.

“Heineken Cup or European Cup finals is different. There is something magical with Munster in Europe that you can’t quite put your finger on, like I said about going to Thomond Park, last year going to Dublin for the semi-final for the Saracens game was the best atmosphere I ever played in in my life.

“It is so disappointing to not perform on those days because of what’s around you, your family are in the crowd, the crowd are on a different level and you want to play in those days as much as you can.

“They are the days you will remember in 30-40 years when you look back on your career and say those are the special ones.

“I’m sure hopefully Bordeaux [host city for the semi-final with Racing 92] is similar in terms of what the crowd bring, but then it is down to us to perform on the pitch.

“The crowd will definitely do something for us, but they don’t win you semi-finals as we saw last year, so we just need to perform.”

The atmosphere at Thomond Park has been a hallmark of European Cup rugby for over two decades since the Heineken Cup’s inception back in 1995, but the moments shared by the players in the aftermath of those big wins in Limerick is one of the best parts of being a professional rugby player, at least according to Conway.

He said at the press conference that his career has been a slow burner and that he has used injuries and missing big games as fuel to get back into the side for future contests, which, is a journey made all the worthwhile by wins but quickly curbed by the prospect of what lays ahead – a Champions Cup semi-final with Racing 92 in this case – the only side to defeat Munster in this year’s tournament.

“Yeah, it’s pretty manic. There’s a lot going on,” Conway described the Munster dressing room after the Toulon win.

“There’s lads who are struggling with knocks who were hanging on through the game, there’s excitement, there’s the lads who weren’t involved and you’re in there mingling with them, there’s a few beers obviously and you’re just taking a few moments to yourself.

“I’d be sitting next to Zeebs or whoever, Wootton or Earlsy or whoever it might be, depending on the numbers in the dressing-room.

“And it’s probably one of the best parts about being a professional rugby player, sitting there after a big win and it’s after taking everything you had, and the crowd being there, and the whole thing that comes with these experiences and being able to take a few moments to yourself and be grateful for what happened, and reflect on it a small bit.

“Then you go up and you kind of crack on and it’s forgotten pretty quickly, to be honest with you.

“Like I said, if us as a squad keep reverting back to Toulon, there’s moments that that game could have gone another way so we know we’re delighted to be in a semi-final.

“But that’s where we’re at now, semi-final rugby.”

A familiar place for Munster but a distant leap for Conway from where he was just two months ago.

Meanwhile head coach Johann van Graan has said that Ireland winger Keith Earls and number eight Jack O’Donoghue would both make a return to training this week, while scrum-half James Hart is following the return to play protocols after suffering a head injury in the province’s win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last Friday night.

“Earlsy will be back on the field tomorrow and we want to see how he’s recovered,” the coach said.

“Jack O’Donoghue will also be on the field later in the week, so we’ll take it day by day and give guys as much time as we can to make the right decisions and to pick the best team we can for Sunday.

“A massive boost (if fit), he brings such experience and he’s been on fire any time he’s been on the field. He’s looking forward to the week and hopefully he can get through training. It would give guys around him confidence and obviously it would be great to have him if he’s ready to go.”

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