There’s a lot of talk about ‘immortality’ when it comes to the Lions, but Jim Telfer’s famous Everest speech from the 1997 tour endures to this day.
or Jack Conan, the journey to the highest peak rugby can offer began in the foothills of the Wicklow mountains.
The 29-year-old has been defying the odds his whole career and while he goes on tour with an outside shot of a Test berth, you’d be foolish to write him off.
Tony Ward remembers the first time the gangly fourth year caught his eye while wearing the green and blue of St Gerard’s College.
After 20 years, the legendary former Munster, Ireland and Lions out-half recently retired as the school’s director of rugby and the most successful period of his tenure began with a trip to Armagh.
“There’s one standout memory I have. I was coaching with the late Joe McDonnell and we were playing Royal School, Armagh one Saturday morning,” Ward says.
“Jack was a rookie, a fourth year with the sixth years. I was standing behind the goal when we got a lineout at the ‘22 and he took the ball and went on an incredible, swerving run. It wasn’t brute force, all skill.
“He was playing in the second-row that day, I just turned to Joe and said, ‘F***ing hell, that guy’s a back-row forward’. He just stood out immediately. He really did.
“He struck me as a guy with potential and he was lucky that we brought Eric Miller in then and from Jack’s point of view, it was great. Joe was a No 8 and when he finished Eric took over and it meant he had really good coaching.”
Conan’s three years as a senior player coincided with the school’s most consistently successful period.
They won three Leinster schools leagues in succession, beat Blackrock College in a Senior Cup shock to end all Senior Cup shocks and reached the semi-finals twice. He wasn’t alone, former Leinster and Connacht back Steve Crosbie was another star of the side, but their No 8 was a totem for the school and the Leinster scouts took note and he was added to the sub-Academy once he finished school.
“He was central to that team. Stevie Crosbie was at out-half, Ryan O’Loughlin plays in the centre for Mary’s now,” Ward recalls.
“We had a very talented group. For the schools outside the top four or six, the league is huge and we won it three years in a row and got to two semi-finals, which was phenomenal for a school our size. Jack was central to that, a huge figure.
“The potential was there, but potential based on physicality in school and then what you develop into are two different things.
“Two things I don’t think he gets enough credit for, he’s a very courageous player who does a lot of donkey work that people don’t acknowledge.
“Secondly, he’s a very perceptive player. A very good footballer.
“He has that ability that I think is massive for a backline and scrum-half, that long reach that certain players have where they’re able to place the ball way back at the breakdown which makes it so much easier for the backs coming on to the ball rather than a scrum-half having to go looking for it.
“He had that ability right through school with the long levers. That’s stood to him and with that try he got against England, he showed that stretch.
“People rightly go on about Caelan Doris and Gavin Coombes. There’s a lot of decent No 8s around and they’ve forgotten about Max Deegan, but Jack is right up there at the top.”
Ward is keen to point out that Conan’s multi-sport background was pivotal to his development.
At Kilmacanogue GAA club, they believe the Ireland No 8 could have held down the same jersey for the Wicklow seniors, while he was an imposing centre-half for Glencormac United before focusing on the oval ball.
“Those things have helped me massively, going back to my time with Kilmac’ and Glencormac,” Conan said recently in an interview with the Bray People.
“There wasn’t a day of the week that we were not down there training in some capacity, for either sport. It was a fantastic time and something that I always look back with great memories.
“(At St Gerard’s), Joe Mac was very much an old-school kind of rugby coach but he went a long way towards toughening us up.. He was always someone who was a strict taskmaster about work, probably more about the dark arts of the game. He enjoyed the nitty-gritty of rucking and making tackles and things through the years.
“Joe would’ve popped up to Leinster training, he would’ve known Leo Cullen from Blackrock. His was always a face I was happy to see.
“St Gerard’s is somewhere that has always been close to my heart. I love Bray, I love St Gerard’s, I love the area.”
At Leinster, Conan had to bide his time and when he was released to Old Belvedere the powerful back-row threw himself into his task and relished his time at the club.
He was a key member of the 2011 U-20s team that produced a remarkable four of the current Lions travelling party, before he made his Leinster debut in 2014.
For two years, he was deputy to the seemingly unbreakable Jamie Heaslip but when the Naas native went down clutching his back in pain in the warm-up to the 2016 Six Nations game against England, Conan’s time had come.
At Leinster, he filled the great No 8’s jersey seamlessly, but with Ireland he had to bide his time and earn Joe Schmidt’s trust.
Always plain-spoken, Conan would relay the feedback he would get from the Irish set-up in interviews and in particular it was his ability to stay in games between the big moments that was the biggest work-on.
Slowly he got there, playing a bit-part in the 2018 Grand Slam and the series win in Australia before starring in a flagging side during the 2019 Six Nations. By the time the World Cup rolled around, he looked primed to start at No 8 but a foot injury ended his tournament and robbed him of a year of his career.
During that period out, Doris arrived on the scene and when Marcell Coetzee’s departure from Ulster was announced, there was even some talk that Conan could head north for game-time.
Instead, he knuckled down. When Doris went down injured, he stepped in and stepped up.
Against England, he was superb. After Leinster’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat to La Rochelle, Ronan O’Gara spoke about how their game-plan was built around stopping Conan and Robbie Henshaw.
Warren Gatland was impressed enough to take him on tour and, having had his World Cup taken from under him, he now has another chance to impress on the biggest stage.
“He is very effective as a ball-carrier. He has got ability in the lineout. He has grown in that area and he can grow further. It is a competitive area, that back-row, isn’t it?” Leinster and Lions coach Robin McBryde said of Conan this week.
He’s not attracting much attention, but Conan’s entire rugby journey is an unlikely one and he won’t be fazed by the ultimate summit.