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'It's something I've been working on; off-the-ball work, the reading of a game'

Munster and Ireland wing Andrew Conway’s work-rate off the ball is exemplary.

Andrew Conway was speaking before the final round of 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup pool games this weekend.
Andrew Conway was speaking before the final round of 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup pool games this weekend.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated Jan 20th 2022, 8:02 PM

OFTENTIMES, RUGBY WINGS are judged for their involvements on the ball – the tries they score, the linebreaks they make, the offloads they produce.

But so much of the modern-day wing’s job is about their off-the-ball effort, both in attack and defence.

Munster and Ireland wing Andrew Conway is a player who epitomises the importance of off-the-ball work-rate, even if the rewards don’t always come in obvious fashion.

Take this example from Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup win over Castres last weekend, where Conway starts on the right-hand side of the scrum.

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As Rory Scannell finds Keith Earls with a diagonal kick, we can see below that Conway takes off, working hard up the pitch and infield.

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Earls passes to Mike Haley on his outside and then we can see Conway infield with his hand in the air screaming for a possible kick or long pass.

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Haley passes to Chris Farrell, who is tackled, and when Munster recycle the ball, Conway has returned to a wide position out on the right.

A better connection from Jack Crowley on his cross-kick and Munster might have had a score here, with Castres loosehead prop Antoine Tichit looking uncomfortable as the last defender out wide.

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The initial run from Conway off his wing is somrthing he has been developing in his game.

“It’s something I’ve been working on and something that coaches both nationally and provincially had been eager for me to work on, that off-the-ball work, the reading of a game,” explains Conway.

“In that instance, we’re chatting between us as the scrum is setting up about where the space might be.

“Their 11 was flat opposite me, their 15 was deep in behind the scrum so that space in the bottom right corner wasn’t really on. Their right winger was potentially trying to tell us a few lies. We just got Rory the ball with the option to run or kick and he obviously put it on a plate for Earlsy.

“I knew that kick was a possibility and I was trying to make my move and work as hard as I could to give an option to the lads so that if we make that linebreak, I’m there as a support player. There’s a few elements to it – a game awareness, a hunger to make a run and put in a big effort.

“I was chatting to Mike Haley about it this week and asking if he saw me. I know from being in his position carrying the ball at full pace that it’s really hard to look almost 40 yards to his right to see someone there.

“There’s just so many bodies moving, but the more I can make those runs, and chat to guys, have those conversations, then hopefully there’s more awareness from guys that that’s where I will be.”

On New Year’s Day, we saw a very successful example of Conway’s off-the-ball work-rate as he chased a kick downfield to nab a try.

Munster have turned the ball over just inside their own 22 and as Ben Healy kicks into the exposed Connacht backfield, Conway is out of shot on Munster’s right-hand side.

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Conway gets on his bike with urgency, making up lots of ground as Healy’s long kick bounces into the Connacht 22.

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Conway’s work-rate means that as Healy then blocks down Mack Hansen’s attempted clearance and Shane Daly gets a foot onto the ball…

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… Conway is in prime position to pounce for the try.

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“That’s just making the extra effort to be there,” says Conway of the score.

“Honestly, nine times out of 10 you don’t get anything out of it. It’s few and far between that you get something but the more I try to make those runs, the more I have got chances.”

Conway’s movement off the ball was prominent for Ireland last November too.

Note below how Conway starts on the right-hand side of the breakdown as Ireland attack to their left.

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As James Lowe gets the ball in midfield, Conway has already worked up ahead of the ball with a pre-emptive support line should there be a break by Ireland.

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That’s exactly what transpires and Conway is on Jack Conan’s inside shoulder to accept a pass and transfer the ball onto Jamison Gibson-Park.

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“In that Japan game, there were a few times it worked out nicely,” says Conway.

“Sometimes, nothing comes of it but it’s important to keep trying to add as much as you can at all times. Sometimes you can feel a bit useless out there out on the wing doing nothing so you’ve got to find a bit of work to contribute.”

It has been pleasing for Conway to focus on this aspect of his game and see some reward, while his kicking game has also improved notably in recent years thanks to positive work on this important skillset.

Every backline player now needs to be competent in kicking the ball but good skills with the boot can be particularly advantageous for a wing, allowing them to create scoring chances or get out of trouble when closed down close to the touchline.

“I’ve had to work really hard on it,” says Conway, who is also excellent at fielding kicks in the air.

“I couldn’t kick snow off a rope for a long, long time. Richie Murphy [Ireland's former kicking coach] was even slagging me in camp a year or so ago asking, ‘What is going on? Where have you produced this from?’

“I suppose it’s just from practice. I peeled it right back and I actually do less practice of the traditional me and you standing 40 yards away from each other and kicking the ball to each other.

“It’s more practice of just grabbing a ball by myself and moving at just over walking pace, putting the ball on my foot – so that if I’m putting in a small grubber kick, I can regather it within five yards. It’s just that ball drop where the ball is dropping onto my foot.”

Conway is predominantly right-footed but works on his left foot too, allowing him to pull off kicks like the beautiful effort below that led to an Ireland try against the US last summer when he started on the left wing.

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“I find that my left-foot short kicking game, not so much the chips but the grubbers, is actually better because of the dynamic of my right hand coming down to my left foot, that works,” says Conway.

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“When you’re running, that flows better. If I’m kicking the ball off my right, I still hold it in my right hand and it’s not quite as fluid.

“The same with chipping. I have found that with opportunities to chip over the years, I have actually gone a bit too long with it so that the trajectory kind of ends up being a half-chip, half-kick-ahead. You want that Teddy Thomas-style kick where you literally just lift it over someone – that doesn’t give the defender coming across the pitch a chance to catch me while I’m waiting for the bobbling ball to hop up.

“Again, it’s at the start of training walking up and down the pitch, putting the ball down onto my foot at a really slow rate and seeing how consistent I can be popping it six yards up into the air and back down.

“It’s something Steve Larkham said when he first came in [as Munster senior coach] – things have to be muscle memory. When you’re out there in a game, you will do what you’re most comfortable with. When I’m running down the sideline and want to do a particular kick, when everything is happening really quickly, you will do whatever your muscles and brainwaves remember you doing most often.

“That really stood out to me, so it makes sense to practice that as opposed to the traditional way of doing things.”

While being effective in attack is a huge part of any wing’s role, the defensive side of the game is every bit as important.

Conway earned widespread kudos for his double tackle with Garry Ringrose on Jordie Barrett early on in Ireland’s win over New Zealand last November, but he says it was more about the Leinster centre.

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“I was a bit fortunate that I was in that particular position,” says Conway. “Sometimes you’re five yards further across or three yards the other way, but I was in an advantageous position to make that tackle.

“It’s my job to be there and honestly, this isn’t fake humbleness, but what Garry did there was way more impressive. He worked back after they kicked over his head, then Rieko Ioane tried to take him out in the breakdown, he fought out of that and the intent he put in… my intent was kinda legs but Garry tried to kill him, legally.

“If Garry wasn’t there, he [Ioane] might take me over the tryline or it’s very close. There was so much intent in Garry’s action there and it was a big moment in the game.”

For wide men like Conway, defensive duties have utterly transformed over the past five or six years, with the widespread desire for linespeed meaning wings have to make difficult decisions all the time – often shooting up even when the defence is numbers down.

Conway stresses that wings are very much reliant on their team-mates to make their lives easier.

“You are dependent on guys around you to help you out. In the wide channels, it can feel like there’s waves coming at you at times. I’m so dependent on what goes on inside me – their linespeed, guys staying alive when we’re under pressure.

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“The inside makes the outside look good. Obviously, we need to do our job out there but it’s heightened at its most in defence. There are times you look good with a particular read but that’s happened because lads on the inside have given such good linespeed that the opposition are forced to pass early and my read is easier.

“I still have to do it but I honestly have to pass a lot of credit to guys on the inside.

“Where I need to add is to communicate and give energy, make sure that whenever I want lads to go on the inside, they can hear me and feel that energy. I have to get the particular system we’re after called in, then we get after the attack.

“As one of the defensive leaders, 13 and wing these days are the guys calling the system, so that’s where you’ve got to take the onus and have the confidence and conviction to go after teams at times.

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“At other times, you have to be smart and there’s times where we were in trouble against New Zealand [as above] and someone like Earlsy was just so experienced.

“I don’t even know if I said anything to him, I just knew by him that ‘we’re in trouble, we’re going to connect up and push the outside.’ We were a bit fortunate at times where they threw bad passes.

“It can be complex but it’s enjoyable.”

Andrew Conway was speaking before the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup final round of pool games this weekend. This year’s tournament marks the 27th consecutive season Heineken has been a proud partner of European rugby, and the fifth season of the Heineken and Rugby Players Ireland partnership.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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