Jack Conan striving to lock in and rid his game of 'mental tap-outs'

The Leinster man is chasing perfection in a bid to compete with CJ Stander for Ireland’s number 8 jersey.

Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

JACK CONAN HAS high standards for himself. And he’s not afraid to set those benchmarks in luminous paint for all to see.

At the beginning of the season, fresh from an impressive summer tour with Ireland, the 25-year-old boldly claimed that his ‘time for being patient was over’ and now it was time for him to dominate the very biggest games and Tests.

A training knock before Ireland’s win over South Africa played a part in denying us all of a straight shoot-out between him and CJ Stander for Ireland’s number 8 jersey. Once the Munster man gets a hold of a first-team place, he doesn’t loosen the grip lightly and so Conan left Carton House with 80 minutes against Fiji to his name and raft of work-ons from Joe Schmidt ringing in his ears.

“(I) just had a bit of a chat with (Schmidt) after training and wanted to know where I stood,” said Conan, looking back on the week leading up to the final November Test against Argentina.

“He gave me a few work-ons and things to take back home, to come back to Leinster with and try and improve on — defensively, try and get tackle entry, tackle effectiveness.

“I would’t miss a whole lot of tackles, but could definitely be a bit more effective and make more impact hits, you know, that’s something we spoke about, my work around the ruck as well so, you know, he was happy with how it went in the Fiji game and how I played.”

Conan insists the critique of the minute details in his game is not something that damages confidence. Indeed, any player who did nurse a bruised ego after such a Schmidt appraisal would find it difficult to come up for air amid the constant need to be aware of the Kiwi’s notorious details and work-ons.

Instead, Conan is intent on using the busy winter schedule ahead of Leinster to show his wares under pressure and under fatigue. No better place to start making his case for the Six Nations than against the English champions on Sunday then.

“I haven’t been told to go back and remodel myself as a player. It’s small margins and just little things.
I’d be guilty at times of ‘tapping out’ mentally and just being a bit of a passenger and just watching the game. It’s just concentration, staying in the moment, picking up on cues when tackling players — how they carry the ball, things like that — and just working earlier on getting set and getting off the line, making sure my feet are planted and that I get in a dominant hit.

“So it’s not this drastic change at all, it’s small things, and staying in the moment for me. So there’s a lot of physical and technical work, but a lot of it is mental as well so I can work on and off the pitch on it. I’m pretty confident that if I can just tip away at it slowly and make steady improvements week to week, I should be in a good spot.”

When a further question comes, the number 8 goes back to add and clarify that he may have been a tad “dramatic” with the description above. The definition that he and Schmidt ascribe to a ‘mental tap-out’ isn’t necessarily as literal as the ‘passenger’ Conan mentions. It can be a split-second after making a tenth tackle in the game, or it could be any of the thousand little things that go into an uber-physical chess match.

“I think ‘switching off’ in your eyes might be a bit more dramatic, I’m not off with the fairies mid-game or anything like that, but there are just moments – it’s 80 minutes and more to keep your concentration, to always be in the moment.

Jack Conan runs in to score his sides third try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“And it mightn’t happen in every game, if it happens at all… it might just be in a ruck and not having your eyes up, and just thinking that this ruck’s over when they can counter-ruck you and slow down the ball. It’s a small thing.”

He adds: “When I was a kid in school  playing for St Gerard’s, I had coaches telling me that I’d come in and out of games and I’ve got drastically better at it since then, but playing for St Gerard’s and playing rugby Ireland, and for Leinster in the Champions Cup, there’s a slight difference in standards.

“So even the smallest switch-off, or ‘mental tap-out’ as Joe would say, isn’t good enough. And it’s something I have improved throughout the years, but there’s always room for growth.”

For Conan, the months ahead have more room than most.

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Sean Farrell

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