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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 13 April 2021

Waiting days over: Conway determined to make things happen for Munster and Ireland

The Munster man made a belated Test debut last year, but has solidified his place in the back three pecking order since.

ANDREW CONWAY HAS matured into the player he always threatened to be. 

Andrew Conway scores his sides first try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Munster man wasn’t blessed with an injury-free run this past season.

Untimely knocks kept him out of the Grand Slam picture and, after scoring a try to help Ireland level the series in Australia, a bang to the hip meant he missed the decider in Sydney.  Yet the campaign still felt like a year of inexorable progress for Conway, building on his 2017 Test debut by playing three Rugby Championship nations as well as stringing together excellent performances – topped by one magic moment -  in red.

With the World Cup looming large on the horizon, Conway’s importance only grows for Ireland.

Joe Schmidt has nailed his colours to the mast with the masterful Rob Kearney as clear-cut first-choice at fullback.  Simon Zebo has ventured overseas, Jared Payne has retired and Tiernan O’Halloran is permanently out of favour. So Conway at present appears to be the safe pair of hands Schmidt will turn to as cover for the decorated veteran Louthman.

Like his coach Felix Jones before him, Conway fits the description of a dutiful utility back to fill the number 23 shirt when it comes to sending out the strongest team – though obviously, a starting wing berth remains within his reach too.

Such a role would require the 27-year-old to continue spreading his time and effort across at least two positions.

It’s far from ideal to be dividing his attention in the analysis room and field between wing and fullback. But Conway is proud of his ability to adapt with minimal fuss, a trait most recently called into practice when Mike Haley was pulled from the fullback role ahead of the rout of Ulster. He views it as a non-negotiable responsibility.

‘Whatever happens’

“I found out on Friday I was playing fullback (against Ulster on Saturday), but other than a few knock-ons I was happy with my game.

“You adapt to whatever actually happens, but it’s on me to know that it’s a possibility. To know that, even if Mike (Haley) didn’t drop out before a game, if I had to go in one minute in (to a game) I would have 79 minutes that it’s up to me to play.

“I know that, up until Friday, I am covering fullback and it’s on me to know my role and get in there for a few reps in training… rugby is an attritional game and it’s up to me, whatever happens, I have to be ready to rock wherever I am needed.”

Large portions of the skill-sets are inter-changeable for wings and fullbacks, but they remain very different positions with very different levels of responsibility in both attack and defence.

Nothing beats playing in one spot to master a position either, so Conway appears hyper-aware of a need to work extra hard in polishing any rough edges in his game to keep himself prepared for any scenario. 

“I’d like to be better at both,” says Conway with infectious energy, “(but) when you are coming in from a wing to a 15, there’s definitely changes. 

Specifically in attack, that is different. Usually when you get the ball out on the width you’re attacking and you’re hitting a line if there is an offload opens up you try and throw it.

“You have to be a lot more conscious of space when to hold your feet and be a link player and when to attack a gap.

“There are different levels of understanding that definitely take a while. And if I look back on my game there are times when I should have held my feet and given a pass and also times when I should have gone harder on the ball and taken that space myself.”

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Though he offers a warning that his answers may take time if he gets into specifics, Conway thrives in talking through the minutiae of the game. He has made it his business to pore over details and force himself to improve the fundamentals in his game.

Andrew Conway Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Passing, for me, would be a big thing (to improve). At 15 more than the wing… the space on the edge is a by-product of accurate passing from one side to the other. If someone gets held a bit and there’s a half-second delay that’s when you see lads getting caught in the corner, those metres close up.

“Aerial game is a big thing, one-on-one tackle is a big thing… you try and sit in with coaches and try and get a plan in place for short to medium term to see the games so that’s a constant thing in my schedule.

“It’s a constant evolution.

“You’re constantly chasing getting better: if you think where you are at is good enough, you are going to get found out pretty quick.

I was at the start of my career thinking I could go out there (on the field), the ball would come to me on the wing and I would score a try and then I’d go back and if the ball came back to me again… but that’s just not reality.

“You need to… it’s not even the physical action, it’s the mental capacity to walk on the pitch and say I’m going after this for 80 minutes and I’m going to work for 80 minutes. Nothing else is really relevant other the 80 minutes in front of you.”

Joey Carbery celebrates scoring a try with Andrew Conway and Keith Earls Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Aiding this mental fortification is, of course, Keith Earls.

“I chat to Earlsy a bit about the mental side of things and what he says is: ‘we train hard and do everything in the week to get ready for the game’. When the whistle blows for start of the 80 minutes, nothing else matters. That’s what you’re judged on’.

“So I think that’s a really nice mindset to go into things. Because it’s only 80 minutes in one week and then you reset on the Monday and go again; go through the processes of getting your recovery done, getting your training done, getting better at all those small little small skills that create the byproduct on the Saturday.”

Andrew Conway Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Hopefully, at some point all the small skills, the little unseen tweaks and changes made to plans and preparations will bubble up the surface as big show-stopping moments. Conway’s Toulon try in the Champions Cup quarter-final was certainly one such instance. There’s no denying it felt pretty damn good. And the 27-year-old is eager to feel the same sort of rush again.

“It’s nice to be involved in a big moment like that, but that’s all it is: one moment in one game.

“Great that it had a huge impact on the result but it’s less about (taking) confidence,  more determination or desire to be that guy again.”

Back against his native province in the Aviva would be a sweet time to strike.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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