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'I love to have the chance to run at the halfbacks, so it's great for me!'

Jack Conan has excelled in Leinster’s number eight shirt this season.

NUMBER EIGHTS BURSTING off the base of the scrum and thundering at halfbacks has always been a thrilling sight in rugby, although the art form had become less and less common in recent years.

But picking from the back of the scrum for a rumbling carry is back with a vengeance, and Leinster’s Jack Conan is one of the players leading the charge.

As he lines up opposite another pick-and-carry specialist in Louis Picamoles in Leinster’s clash with Montpellier today [KO 1pm Irish time, Sky Sports], we should expect to see plenty more of it.

Jack Conan Jack Conan is enjoying an excellent season with Leinster. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The 25-year-old has been having an impressive season with his native province, enjoying his status as the first-choice number eight with Jamie Heaslip sidelined indefinitely.

The big carries from the base of the scrum have been spectacular, but they are also important to Leinster’s game as they look for front-foot ball from their scrum, both for creating attacking chances and for building towards exits from their defensive territory.

“I think it’s due to the platform from the lads in the front five, the front row, all the hard work they’ve been putting in,” says Conan.

“We’ve obviously got a world-class front row… how many Lions have do we have there? Three Lions? I better not get that one wrong! The work they’ve put in and the platform they’re able to give myself and the halfbacks, so that’s an option.

“Obviously last weekend [against Glasgow], once or twice I had to go off the base because the scrum wasn’t as stable but I think it’s something as an eight – and talking to Jamie about it – it’s something we have a licence to do, once it’s the right option. I love to have the chance to run at the halfbacks, so it’s great for me!”

The carries into smaller defenders are one of Conan’s more glamorous duties, but forward play is about much more. Leinster’s pack has been increasingly dominant at maul time in recent months, with their 20-metre maul try against Glasgow providing the latest example.

While Scott Fardy is rested today for the clash with Montpellier, his impact in this area has been crucial. The Australian has far more to his armoury – including superb catch-pass skills – but Conan underlines Fardy’s contribution to Leinster’s maul.

“I think it’s been simplified,” says Conan when asked why Leinster’s maul has been performing so well. “Scott Fardy has come in and he’s been massive with that. He’s obviously got a lot of experience with the Wallabies and the Brumbies.

Scott Fardy and Devin Toner during a maul Fardy has been an influence on the maul. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We’ve just gone back to basics with it. I think it’s something we’ve used a lot of in the last few months and it’s been a great source of entry into games for us. We back our fitness and it’s a way to the legs out from underneath other teams and tire out the pack.

“I think with the pace we have out wide as well, to narrow defences into defending our maul and being able to play out wide has shown great dividends so far.”

While provincial concerns come first for now, Conan will hope that his efforts for Leinster in Montpellier go some way towards impressing Joe Schmidt ahead of the Six Nations.

Competition for the back row will be as fierce as ever, but Conan feels he has improved in the areas Schmidt asked him to. They spoke honestly during the November Tests and the Ireland coach gave Conan some clear and detailed ‘work-ons’ around his defence.

“It was about my energy and my bounce in D,” says Conan. “The main point of that was because I wasn’t staying in the moment. I think it’s been better since we sat down and talked about it. We’ve had those two Exeter games, even in the inter-provincials, defensively my workload has been a good bit higher.

“Last weekend, it was very, very low but it was just a strange game, I didn’t end up getting through a lot of work at all in the 55 minutes I played. But I think we struggled to go through more than nine phases of play, so it was hard on either side of the ball to get into it.

“I sat down and I looked at myself and there were massive areas to improve on. I do think I’m gradually getting there, so I’m happy with the progress.”

Jack Conan Conan remains at number eight in the Leinster team for today. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

For now, Ireland caps are not in Conan’s thoughts. Though Leinster have made six changes and rested Fardy and Johnny Sexton, they arrived in France yesterday utterly determined to lay down a marker by beating Montpellier to claim a clean sweep of their pool.

Leinster have already secured their home quarter-final, but they are keen not to let up now.

“I think the physicality that they play with, I think it means that bit more to them when they are in their own backyard,” says Conan of Montpellier.

“We know they’re under a lot of pressure, they need the win to qualify out of the group and keep their European dreams alive.

“We’re in a position where with another few points we’re top of Europe and we can put our best foot forward going into the knock-out stages.”

Montpellier:

15. Benjamin Fall
14. Timoci Nagusa
13. Frans Steyn
12. Jan Serfontein
11. Nemani Nadolo
10. Aaron Cruden
9. Ruan Pienaar

1. Mikheil Nariashvili
2. Bismarck Du Plessis
3. Antoine Guillamon
4. Nicholaas Van Rensburg
5. Konstantine Mikautadze
6. Kelian Galletier
7. Yacouba Camara
8. Louis Picamoles 

Replacements:

16. Romain Ruffenach
17. Yvan Watremez
18. Mohamed Haouas
19. Julien Delannoy
20. Fulgence Ouedraogo
21. Gela Aprasidze
22. Joe Tomane
23. Jesse Mogg

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Isa Nacewa (captain)
11. James Lowe
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Cian Healy
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Dan Leavy
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan 

Replacements:

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Jack McGrath
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Luke McGrath
22. Joey Carbery
23. Fergus McFadden

Referee: Luke Pearce [RFU].

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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