Leinster forward Jack Conan joined Off The Ball on Thursday night to discuss his journey from struggling with injury to starting three tests with the British and Irish Lions in the summer.
Two years ago, Jack Conan was hoping to announce himself as a star at the World Cup. An abrupt end to his tournament prevented that from happening.
Instead, Conan travelled down to South Africa this summer to show the world how good of a player he was. Warren Gatland trusted Conan as his starting number eight in all three tests. That came as a shock, especially considering Conan was a surprise inclusion in the squad initially.
For Gatland to choose an Irish player over Taulupe Faletau, that Irish man needed to be great, not just good.
Although the Lions tour in itself was a disappointment for more reasons than just the result, Conan came out of it as a recognized star. He was a battering ram who played with nuance in attack while holding up his end in terms of physicality in defence.
"If you asked me this time last year would I go on a Lions tour and start three tests I'd have laughed at you," Conan said.
"I loved every second of it, I really did. I'm better for it."
Now he's back in training with Leinster, where competition for starting places isn't any easier than with the Lions. Conan is now 29 years old, has played 100+ times for Leinster and 20 times for Ireland. He has the resume and the skill set to be Leinster's starting eight, but Caelin Doris is an emerging superstar and Max Deegan isn't far off returning from injury.
Doris and Deegan offer the excitement of youth, but Conan offers the clean bill of health that he didn't have last year or the year before.
"In August [last year], when I started playing again, I was fit but I just wasn't playing to the level that I could have or that I had previously played at. That was the most frustrating and the most difficult thing to deal with because I knew there was so much more in me.
"I knew I wasn't at the level I needed to be."
Part of Conan's challenges were mental rather than physical. He was physically healthy and fit to play but hadn't established his comfort on the field.
"I felt the pressure to go out and perform to a really high standard in my first game back. Which is just so difficult to do. You can't spend that much time away...and every time I didn't perform to the standard I wanted to, it just increased the pressure for the next game."
"There were four or five really high-pressure games, must-win, knockout rugby games...to this day, that has been the most stressful time of my life. I was just really struggling with the pressure of it, the pressure I put on myself more than anyone else.
"So then when I got three or four weeks without playing, I just realized that's no way to do it."
It was a calf injury that sidelined Conan for three weeks early last season. Ever since then, his mantra towards rugby has changed and it's clearly worked.
"Ever since then I've just tried to enjoy it.
"I just told myself I'm not going to worry about it. I'm going to train really hard, be in the best shape I can be, do all my rehab, stay on top of all of that. Be as fit as I can, try to enjoy training as much as I can, try to enjoy games as much as I can. I still get nervous, everyone gets nervous, that's part of it but I just said look if you make a mistake or things don't go well, that's just life."
"Learn from it but don't let it keep you down."
Munster have a season of pressure and promise ahead of them | Brian O'Driscoll.
Team of Us. Everyone In.
Vodafone. The main sponsor of the Irish Rugby Team
Download the brand new OffTheBall App in the Play Store & App Store right now! We've got you covered!
Subscribe to OffTheBall's YouTube channel for more videos, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for the latest sporting news and content.