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'I came here autograph hunting as a kid - now I'm playing for Ireland'

Will Connors has taken the leap from Ireland fan to Ireland player in a few short years.

Connors in action against France last month.
Connors in action against France last month.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

WILL CONNORS SAW the future with a piercing clarity. Carton House, Kildare. Just down the road from the family home. He and his mates would haggle a lift and then hang around the old estate, boots in their hands, dreams in their heads.

This was where the Ireland team trained and as they emerged from practice – O’Gara, O’Driscoll, O’Connell, shy little Will Connors would stick out his boots and murmur his request. “Could you sign these for me, please?”

As the years passed, he felt increasingly surer. He was big for his age and getting bigger. He could carry well. Someone mentioned that defence is a part of the game too so reluctantly he started perfecting that bit as well. And all of a sudden he got a reputation as a specialist chop tackler.

And all of a sudden the kid who walked up that long avenue at Carton House was asked to go on the other side of the ropes. Andy Farrell saw something in him; so too Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, high caliber coaches in thrall to his implacable will.

February 2018, they gave him a break. The Southern Kings, hardly a powerhouse, well they got a taste of the Will Connors show. A week later there was a five-minute cameo against Scarlets, then a second start against Edinburgh, minus their contingent of Scottish internationals.

He had life in his grip and as he kept getting better, the challenges kept getting bigger. Three appearances for Leinster in 2018/19 were backed up by another two the following season and then 848 minutes for the province last year. There was Munster in the Pro14 semis, Saracens in the Champions Cup quarters.  

The biggest thing you notice is that at this level mistakes are punished,” Connors says. “You cannot lose a moment, can’t really zone out of a game for a second because that is when the top teams expose you. You need to be adaptable, to be able to play both sides of the ball. I am definitely pushing myself skill set wise, trying to get on the ball a lot more, trying to back myself as a carrier.”

andy-farrell-and-will-connors Connors with Andy Farrell at Ireland training. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Backing himself seems a hard sell. When today’s interview ended, he could be heard to say he had ‘sold himself short again’.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with a bit of old-fashioned humility. O’Driscoll possessed it, too – admitting he periodically doubted himself and that angst fuelled a desire to get better.

“A few years when I was only a young lad, I was coming up here to watch training, looking for autographs. It was definitely a cool experience, the place you wanted to come when the Ireland team were in town.” Then he paused for a second. “I didn’t think I would be here myself.”

But he did.

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Italy in October was his debut, a try-scoring, man of the match dream. France a week later was a soberer experience. Ireland lost the game, Connors lost his place for the Wales game, demoted to the bench, where he stayed for last week’s loss in Twickenham.

Ah, Twickenham. The place where dreams get punctured.

“Lads are gutted after losing to England,” Connors said. “We would love to have that game again but I am confident that if we had our time again that we would be capable of doing a job.

“We have the players, we have the plan in place and really it is just about executing it at this point. We just need to find consistency. You look at England as a group, they had a lot of downs together but that is what defines a group, how you bounce back. That ebb and flow in your performance, we need to perform consistently and that is where we are trying to get to at the moment.”

Georgia, this Sunday, is part of that journey. It might not look much, sandwiched on the TV schedule in between Oireachtas Report and Ear to the Ground, but these are the matches when the jigsaw pieces are slotted together, the matches where men like Connors get a sense of belonging.

“You take lessons with you from defeats. Like last week,” he says, pointing to the 18-7 loss to England. “They are obviously a quality side and we learned about not running into brick walls in attack and being able to move the point of attack; putting in little tip passes here and there.

“We need to expand our game. It is tough to take a team on physically like that. We are just trying to play what is in front of us. We are all good rugby players and at the end of the day it is all about playing what is front of you and trusting yourself to give a pass here and there. That is definitely something we are working on from last week.”

Sunday’s test should be passed. Yet this is just a mock exam. It is only when they sit English paper two, in next year’s Six Nations, that we’ll know if they truly have absorbed the lessons from Twickenham. 


About the author:

Garry Doyle

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