'To hear people talking about Ireland, it obviously gives you confidence' - Conor Oliver 4 months ago

'To hear people talking about Ireland, it obviously gives you confidence' - Conor Oliver

"I just get after it, and play hard."

With Conor Oliver and rugby, there have been silver linings and clouds. Clouds and silver linings.

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Back at Skerries Community College, after impressing in their Junior Cup run, he was offered the chance to do his Leaving Cert in Blackrock College. The commute, and training to make the senior team, saw his marks drop off and his mother scolding him.

The solution was to board at the all boys school. Being away from family and friends, back home, for longer stretches was tough, but the reward came when his studies got easier and he won a Leinster Senior Cup. His teammates from that winning year were Joey Carbery, Jeremy Loughman, David O'Connor, Nick Timoney and Caelan Doris.

He got into the Leinster sub academy and can still recall the tough conversation when he was told there would not be a full academy spot for him. The silver lining? Munster were interested.

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Conor Oliver of Munster is tackled by Akira Ioane and Matt Proctor of Maori All Blacks in November 2016. (Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile)

Conor Oliver on choosing Connacht

In 2015, the Skerries native headed to Limerick to try make a mark with Munster. He made his senior debut in February 2016 against Glasgow Warriors and was asked to stick around.

2016/17 was to be a tumultuous and, oftentimes, uplifting season for Munster. They welcomed Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby, Anthony Foley passed away at the age of only 42 in Paris, a grieving team went on a long winning streak, they reached a league final but ultimately fell short in two silverware quests.

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Oliver played 15 times for Munster that season, including starting at openside in the emotional win, less than a month after Foley's death, over the Maori All Blacks, at Thomond Park.

"It was such an amazing occasion. It was pouring down rain, almost sideways, that night. I don't know why, but that almost made it better. It added to the whole atmosphere.

"The one memory that sticks out was them them presenting, and laying down, a jersey for Axel before the game. That was pretty emotional for all the crowd, and for the players too. That really got you going."

That was the season when Oliver proved to Munster, and himself, that he could stick it at the highest level. Over the next three seasons, though, injury set-backs saw him fall down the pecking order and he was limited to 12 senior appearances.

Munster, he says, wanted him to stick around longer but he was keen to move on to get more starts. The silver lining arrived with interest from two sides.

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Leicester Tigers reached out and asked if he could come over to England, during the 2019/20 season, for a two-week trial. He headed over and did enough to get an offer, but his Ireland ambitions kept him on these shores. "I'm going to give it one year," he told himself.

It was the bags packed and off up the road to rejoin his old Munster buddy Sam Arnold at Connacht.

Conor Oliver Conor Oliver is midway through his second season with Connacht (Credit: Sportsfile)

Conor Oliver on Ireland Test hopes

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He signed that one-year deal with Connacht at a time, during that first Covid-19 wave, when nothing seemed certain. He vowed to get stuck in for a season, out West, and see where that left him.

He wrapped up that delayed 2019/20 season with two appearances, made 19 last season and signed on for another year. He already has 10 appearances this season and has signed on for two more years. What's more, his form has been so good that he is being talked up as a potential for Ireland's Six Nations squad.

Asked if such talk has told him he made the right move in pushing his chips behind Connacht, he replies, "Yeah, 100%.

"As I said, that has always been my goal. My goal has always been international caps, from when I started playing rugby that has always been the end goal. And, as I said earlier, the process can change but I've always kept that end goal the same.

"Look, I'm just going to keep playing hard and working hard. That was a goal, but at the start of this season, I didn't even think that I would be in the conversation for that squad. And now, to hear people saying that, it obviously gives you confidence and stuff, but I'm still just trying to focus on performing for Connacht, because we still want... we still have ambitions to win silverware here.

"We still have ambitions to try get out of this European group, although it might be a bit different now. I'm not too sure; I need to look at the points system. But we have ambitions to go on and win games and that's my main priority right now - to try win as many games and put Connacht, as a club, in the best possible position to win silverware."

Andy Farrell is set to announce his Ireland squad for the opening Six Nations rounds, on Wednesday. Oliver is one of the island's form flankers and is surely in the conversation for Farrell and his coaching staff.

It will be a tight call and it may be down to him and his old Blackrock and Leinster Under 20 teammate, Nick Timoney.

If one makes it, the other will probably miss out.

Clouds and silver linings.