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'We have to be better, we have to be pushing on, we need to want it more'

Jack Conan is back in blue and ready for the challenge of Ulster this weekend.
Mar 27th 2019, 7:15 AM 5,621 8

WHILE A NUMBER of returning internationals will have reported for provincial duty last week nursing bruised confidences, Jack Conan was one of the few players to emerge from the Six Nations with more positives than negatives on his ledger. 

The number eight started in the victory over Scotland at Murrayfield in round two and made significant contributions off the bench in his other championship appearances against France and Wales, notably scoring his sixth international try against Les Bleus

Jack Conan Conan pictured in UCD this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Gaining more minutes at Test level was an opportunity welcomed by Conan and certainly the 26-year-old stood up in the absence of CJ Stander to verify his credentials for the World Cup, but now he is eager to quickly turn the page. 

While the cloud of disappointment following Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has lingered and will hang over Joe Schmidt for some time, the players have been able to return to their provinces this week with all of that firmly in the rearview mirror.

Back in Leinster blue, Conan and his team-mates have had little time to dwell on the past as their attention switches instantly to a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against an Ulster side who will arrive in Dublin gunning to cause an upset.

“It’s good to be home and it’s an exciting time for the club,” Conan says, in the all-together more relaxed surroundings of Leinster’s UCD base after spending the last two months in the Carton House bubble.

“On the Six Nations, it was the most amount of minutes I’ve played in a championship which was a real highlight for me but, yeah, it was disappointing as a team, the results and performances.

But it’s nice to be back at Leinster and to focus all our attention on blue. We trained hard last week, Stuart [Lancaster] seriously put us through our paces and it was a tough few days, but I think lads are firing on all cylinders now and they’re fit and chomping at the bit for this weekend.

Conan joins a raft of frontline internationals in returning to Leo Cullen’s selection plans for the first time since rounds five and six of the Champions Cup pool stages back in January, among them Rob Kearney, Jordan Larmour, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, James Ryan, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong.

“Lads have come back in with a huge amount of excitement,” the number eight continues.

“A lot of people were obviously bitterly disappointed with the results over the Six Nations campaign and there were obviously lads who played a hell of a lad more than I did, so especially those lads — your Johnnys, your Tadhgs, your James Ryans — they’re such a pivotal part of the Irish team, those lads are hugely excited to get back in here and get back to winning ways.

“We’ll take the lessons and implement them in here so we’re better for it at Leinster.”

No better occasion than a sold-out Aviva Stadium inter-pro to focus minds again, and Conan’s back row battle with the fit-again Marcell Coetzee and a familiar face in Jordi Murphy will be fascinating on Saturday evening.

Murphy played such an integral role in Leinster’s European success last season before moving north to join Ulster during the summer, and the Ireland international has helped Dan McFarland’s side into a first European knockout game 2014.

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“I’ve never played against Marcell but from speaking to some of the Ulster lads, they say he’s a good bloke,” Conan says of his opposite number this weekend.

Jack Conan The number eight speaking to media. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“He’s an extremely attritional player, very confrontational and physical, he’s unbelievably direct, he carries a lot and gets through a lot of hard work. If I’m playing eight, or involved at all in the back row, he’ll be a massive challenge for us and someone we’ll have to try and nullify early on. There’s no doubt he’s an absolutely quality player and I look forward to testing myself against him if I get the opportunity.

“Jordi will then obviously have an in-depth knowledge of the structures that we play and he’ll know how to go about stopping us as well so we can’t give him easy access into the game. We know how hard he works and how disruptive he can be in those breakdowns.

If he plays at seven, he goes extremely hard at the ball and [at possible] turnovers that he can win. So it’s about not giving him easy access in the game, and not letting Ulster build the style and game they want to play. 

“It’s definitely an added distraction and something we’ll have to sort out early in the game. It’s a big challenge this week.”

After emerging through the pool stages to assure themselves of home advantage in the last eight, Cullen’s side enter into a season-defining block of fixtures as they bid to defend their European and Pro14 crowns.

Leinster are still the team to beat in Europe after their exploits last term and with a sold-out Saturday evening crowd of over 50,000 anticipating another big occasion this weekend, Conan is relishing the chance to deliver an impactful performance.

“It’s tough being champions,” he adds. “Every time you play a team, we have to take it that they’re going to be their absolute best version of themselves and if we are just happy at going out to do our jobs, it’s not enough.

“We have to be even better, we have to be pushing on, we have to be better than we were last year. We need to want it more. We know Ulster are going to be at their absolute best, they’re going to be unbelievably hungry for this game, so we’re under no illusions how tough it’s going to be. They’re an absolute quality side across the park.

“Everybody has their different motivations, whether it be blue or green, but the Aviva is home for us and it’s a sell-out crowd and to have 50,000 people supporting you means so much to myself and the lads. 

“We have a good record there [at the Aviva] in the last few years but that will mean nothing unless we go out and perform on Saturday.”

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