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'What he does has nothing to do with me': Conan not prepared to step aside when Heaslip returns

The Leinster number eight was man of the match again on Friday night.

JACK CONAN MUST be running out of room on his mantlepiece at this stage, as he marked his first start of the new season with the type of performance we now almost expect from him every time he takes to the park.

Jack Conan is tackled by Lloyd Williams Conan wants to keep hold of the number eight jersey even when his senior team-mate returns. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Leinster number eight picked up from where he left off last season under the lights at the RDS on Friday night as the eastern province huffed and puffed before eventually put Cardiff Blues to the sword.

Conan played the full 80 minutes and was influential from the first until last minute, carrying hard in the opening exchanges before playing a key hand in Nick McCarthy’s bonus point clinching score at the death.

It was little surprise to see him walk into the RDS press conference room with the man-of-the-match medallion tucked under his arm. It has become a familiar sight now, as his worth to Leinster grows with each passing muscular display.

Conan’s influence on Friday’s Pro14 clash grew as the game wore on and the statistics validate the decision to give him the MOTM award; 103 metres made and 16 runs with ball in hand — no Leinster player made more. Defensively, he was as influential. Nine tackles highlights his tireless work in contact and at the breakdown, not that we need any reminding.

The 25-year-old has taken his game to a new level over the course of the last 12 months and is consistently producing standout performances in the blue of Leinster, something which was recognised by Joe Schmidt as he toured with Ireland in the summer.

As regular and imposing as his contributions have been, so too have the questions about emerging from Jamie Heaslip’s shadow and gaining a firm grip on that number eight jersey, both at club and international level.

Of course, Heaslip’s season-curtailing injury last year opened the door for Conan but he had already burst through it and was in a great position to seize the opportunity with both hands. His time of waiting was over.

Jack Conan is presented Guinness PRO14 Man of the Match award by Niall Lawless Conan with his MOTM award on Friday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The senior of the two, now aged 34, is still working his way back to full fitness but his presence around Leinster HQ has again raised questions over who is now first choice when Leo Cullen is forced to choose between the two.

“Jamie is a fantastic player and has been a fantastic role model to me, helping me become the player I am today but ultimately I can’t worry about him because what he does has nothing to do with me,” Conan said after Friday’s game.

“I can’t control it, how he performs or what he does so I just try and do my best day in, day out and every time I get to put the jersey on put the hand up and show no matter who’s fit that I want to be starting for this club.

“To be honest, I don’t look too far ahead or try not to anyway. For someone who probably overthinks a lot of things, I take it week in, week out and I’m very kind of task orientated. Monday and Tuesday of the week I’ll sit down and focus on my notes.

“If I’ve been given the task of starting I take massive pride and there’s a lot of weight to the jersey so I know I have to do my upmost best every opportunity, whether it’s 25 minutes last week or a start this weekend.”

One thing is for sure; Conan is not prepared to vacate the position once Heaslip returns to the fold.

“I’m a bit of a stubborn old soul so I won’t be looking to give it back anytime soon even when he does get back to fitness,” he continued.

“I relish the challenge when he’s fit again, he’s a fantastic player and a great bloke. He’ll push me to be better and I’ll push him to be better and the same with the likes of Max [Deegan] who got his first start last week.

“There’s no animosity among us, we all get on very well and obviously I don’t want them to start ahead of me but I definitely want Jamie to push me to be better and I want to do the same to him.”

Jack Conan Conan was the standout performer at the RDS on Friday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Conan helped Leinster to their second bonus point victory of the campaign on Friday and is expected to be part of Cullen’s 28-player travelling party for the two-week mini tour of South Africa.

The Leinster squad will train at their UCD base on Monday and Tuesday before departing for Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon ahead of their back-to-back games against the Kings and Cheetahs.

“Please God I’ll be on the flight over,” Conan adds. “I’m massively excited to go, it’s a new adventure and something that has never been done by Leinster Rugby and the opportunity to be on that team and go over to play one of those sides will go down in history and definitely something I want to be part of.

“It’s not a holiday, it’s work. We’re going over to set our stall out and set our standard.”

– Audio courtesy of 98fm Sport

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