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Dublin: 12 °C Saturday 20 October, 2018

'I thought about it pretty much every day and then when it comes you don't want to f**k up'

Andrew Conway was forced to bide his time before winning his first Ireland cap, but now that he’s reached that level the Munster winger has started this season more ambitious and greedy than ever.

Andrew Conway Andrew Conway starts for Munster against Leinster this afternoon. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE PEAK AND troughs on Andrew Conway’s career chart would make for an interesting case study in years to come, although the trajectory it has taken to get to this point isn’t exactly exclusive to him. Highs coupled with lows, belief offset by doubt and progress counteracted by setbacks, the route to the top isn’t always straightforward.

A prodigiously talented schoolboy with Blackrock College and then prolific at underage level with Ireland U20s, Conway was always a star in the making who had been touted for international honours from an early age. Magical footwork, naturally gifted with ball in hand and electric acceleration, he had it all. But potential is a dangerous word, because transitioning to the senior game means it — potential — has a shelf life; weaknesses are amplified and faults exposed.

A combination of fierce competition at Leinster and a series of injuries stunted Conway’s rapid progression and the general assertion that he would instantly develop and mature into the mainstay of Ireland’s backline for years to come was a little presumptuous, even if his early performances under Michael Cheika conformed with the consensus.

The Dublin-born back looked set for a meteoric rise through the ranks at Leinster after a distinguished underage career with Blackrock — he helped the school win both the Leinster and Senior Cups alongside Brendan Macken and Jordi Murphy — and Ireland U20s, for whom he is still the leading try-scorer after outstanding performances in both the 2010 and 2011 Junior World Cups.

Conway’s development was fast-tracked after just one season in the eastern province’s academy as he made his senior debut at the age of just 19, but soon became frustrated by limited opportunities as he featured just 42 times in the space of four seasons.

Adding to his exasperation was the sight of former team-mates Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy, among others, overtake him in their various stages of development and make their first steps on the international ladder under Declan Kidney and then Conway’s former Leinster coach Joe Schmidt.

Schmidt’s departure from the RDS coincided with Conway’s decision to leave home and head south for a fresh start and a new challenge with Munster. It was a bold move but what strikes you first and foremost is Conway’s maturity and absolute conviction. He knew it was the right decision in the interest of his future ambitions, and had no hesitation in taking a contentious leap.

What few could have predicted, however, was that it would take him another three years at Munster to eventually find the consistency of performance which would see him win that elusive first cap and become a senior Ireland international. To ultimately fulfil that potential and ensure a steep career curve reached its apex before plummeting again.

18 March 2017 proved to be the day Conway had obsessed about. Aviva Stadium, England, the Six Nations finale. Finally, a weight off his shoulders. Pride, but relief as much as anything.

“When you put it like that it almost sounds scary,” he laughs, looking back. “I don’t mean to undervalue it at all but once you’re in it, it feels different. When you’re looking in you’re thinking ‘jeez that’s massive, I wonder will he be alright in that situation.’ When you’re on the inside you’re so focused on what’s in front of you and your time is taken up by going over all your details and training hard.

Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo celebrate winning A moment to savour: after his debut against England. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It just kind of happens, I’m not sure how best to explain it as I don’t want to undervalue it at all. Looking back at it, it was mad. All sorts of stuff is going through your head; you want to win the game first and foremost, then you’re thinking do you want to get on the pitch when you’re on the bench and then you want to make a positive impact when you get on.

“I thought about it pretty much every day and you don’t want to fuck up as well so there’s all sorts of stuff that’s going and it’s hard to put them into order at the time but it wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I expected. If I was looking at someone else doing that I would have thought ‘jesus that’s big’ but it’s different when it’s you suddenly in that situation.”

A senior international debut against England in Dublin was certainly worth the wait for Conway, who came on for Munster team-mate Keith Earls at half-time as Schmidt’s men denied England a Grand Slam.

“Yeah it was, definitely,” he continues. “It was unreal to make my debut and it will be great all going to my plan that I’ve a lot more games like that for Ireland and a lot more games to be involved in but it was definitely worth the wait. It will live long in the memory.”

Conway followed up his first cap with two more on the summer tour to USA and Japan at the end of a breakthrough season in more ways than one for the 26-year-old, who ended the campaign as Munster’s leading try-scorer.

It was all just reward for a string of consistent and standout performances for the southern province, but also the result of a more focused, holistic and stringent approach to training and to rugby in general. It was something of a coming of age and a growing realisation that it was now down to him to drive his evolution as a player and that raw talent alone would not suffice for where he wanted to go.

“My mindset has been changing gradually over the last two years,” he explains. “Not last season, the season before. The summer of the season before. I looked at rugby in a different way and how to develop and the work-rate you need to put in to reach the levels you want to reach. Slowly but surely I added different pieces into my weekly schedule but also being smart about it as well.

“I just started taking a more holistic approach to my training and it has transferred into games but there definitely is a lot more to come as it’s a constant evolution. My formula for it is just using all the available avenues to hone your skills whether that’s working with guys who are best in the specific areas and that’s where you get better.

“Just thinking and chatting about it as much as you can and obviously you’ve to switch off as well but I find the more I’m thinking about it and the more I’m visualising it…if I’m in the pool throwing up a little size one rugby ball to myself and visualising myself in Thomond Park on the Saturday catching the ball. I’d only have to do 10 reps of it, I just find it helps. It’s working my brain and those are the types of things I’ve added into my programme and eventually you find the right things that work for you.”

It’s clear Conway is now someone who is entirely comfortable in his own skin these days, but it wasn’t always that way. As the years passed and opportunities came and went, his every waking moment became consumed with question marks and nagging doubts; why wasn’t it happening for him and was he actually good enough?

There wasn’t so much a defining moment for Conway but a gradual learning process during which he adapted that more holistic approach which helped him view his own game and performances from a subjective perspective rather than an objective one when emotions and frustrations were running high.

“I thought about it pretty much every day. That’s the thing every Irish rugby players wants, to play for Ireland. It was at the forefront of my mind regularly but I think that was important and I think that was one of the reasons why I got there because I really wanted it.

Andrew Conway The Munster winger has featured in all five games for the province this season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It occupied a lot of my thoughts and a lot of the time if I was drifting off daydreaming, sitting in the car in traffic these are the things that are going through your head. It was definitely building up alright so it was relieving to get there. It was great to be picked because you can lose a bit of faith and it is tough to stick with the positive thoughts and believe that you’ll get there.

“For me it was a realisation that this is what other people are getting up to and they’re playing in Six Nations, World Cup and going on Lions tours. I was on par if not better than these guys a few years ago when we’re younger. It was just a lot of reflection, but maybe just sub-conscious reflection. I don’t remember sitting down working out a big plan, it was probably just over time figuring out what was missing.

“Don’t get me wrong I always trained really hard and did it to the best of my ability but probably switched off after that. Now when you’re coming in on your day off working on specific skills and the more you work as hard as you possibly can luck ends up being on your side when it mightn’t have before. That’s my experience of it.”

It was frustrating, and at times discouraging, but deep down he knew his time would come. He knew that constantly filling his mind with thoughts about long-term ambitions was counter-productive and he knew that focusing first and foremost on Munster would greatly increase his chances of earning the right to play at Test level. If the team play well, Conway is more likely to play well.

“It was frustrating but those lads [ahead of him] were playing better than me. I might play well in a game and then have a poor performance or play average for a few games. Then play alright and then play poorly again. I wasn’t feeling hard done by, the guys were consistently playing better than me.

“It could have gone two ways. I could have said alright I was good underage and I’m fine as a provincial player and that’s just going to be my career. Or right let’s strip back the layers here and let’s see what we can do and you end up thinking about these things and you eventually find a way. It was hard to watch at times because you’re thinking ‘could I be out there, am I good enough for that?’ and you’re head would be going a few different ways at times. But at the end of the day you’re in charge of your own success and there is guys out there who couldn’t or didn’t figure out how they could achieve what they were capable of. You can’t be pissed off for things not going your way because you make that yourself. You shape how your career goes.

“And I felt deep down it was going to happen but you never know what those gut feelings are. It’s one of those things that you hope and think is going to happen but you don’t really know. Once I got my house in order I was confident it would come around. I was thinking this could be the time but there were other times I was in camp and playing well and it just didn’t work out for whatever reason but sure look I probably wasn’t ready at the time and all these things happen for a reason.”

It’s unlikely Conway would be sitting here now preaching such a belief had last season continued as it started for him. A grade two MCL injury sustained in the final game of the 2015/16 campaign delayed his involvement in pre-season and after returning he suffered another setback in the form of concussion which kept him sidelined until mid-October.

“You’re thinking Jesus this isn’t going to be my year,” he says, looking back 12 months.

Andrew Conway Conway played twice for Ireland during the summer tour of USA and Japan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But Conway had turned a corner and returned fitter, stronger and more determined. He sat and watched the squad rally together on the pitch following Anthony Foley’s passing but made his impact felt once he got back out there.

He came off the bench for Darren Sweetnam at the end of the first half of the interpro clash with Munster on St Stephen’s Day and that 40-minute cameo paved the way for big performances in the New Year’s Eve derby against Connacht, home and away games against Racing 92 and the trip to Glasgow. Then came the call from Joe, and recognition for the perseverance and dedication.

Conway has been able to continue that form into the new campaign having starred in the opening night win over Treviso and has featured in all five of Munster’s Pro14 outings to date, a record which will be maintained today when he starts on the wing at the Aviva Stadium for a fixture which is particularly significant for him.

Enough water has passed under the bridge for him to give any extra thought to this game against his former club, but Conway knows a big performance on Saturday, of all days, would be particularly sweet; provincial bragging rights are on the line but there is also the small matter of the Champions Cup and November internationals on the horizon.

“These are the ones that get you excited about being a rugby player,” he says. “You’re going up to Dublin to play against Leinster in the Aviva in front of around 50,000 people and it’s the week before Europe. There are positions to be played for and there are big things on the horizon. I’ll tell you Europe is not mentioned once really in a week like this, it’s all hands on deck ahead of a derby match against Leinster.

“You’re playing against the club that you left and everyone leaves for different reasons to chase challenges and start something new but you’re going up against people you grew up with, your pals. The likes of Jordi Murphy who I played with in third class in school all the way up. I don’t think anyone can argue it’s one of the biggest club games in the world.

“My first game against Leinster was in the Aviva and we ended up beating them quite well [34-23, October 2014] and it was a bit of a monkey off my back because I had played against them and could then move on and put that to bed.

“As you go on you do get more ambitious and more greedy but no personal ambitions override the desire to win as a team. As I’ve learned, everything else will follow.”

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Ryan Bailey

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