IT WAS BACK in his school days at Clongowes when Will Connors started to build the habit of tackling low.
Noel McNamara, now the Ireland U20s head coach and Leinster academy manager, was in charge of rugby at the Kildare school back then and he had a novel way of working on his players’ tackling.
McNamara suspended a net at hip height on one of the back pitches, meaning Connors and his team-mates would have to dip and scurry underneath it before making a tackle on the other side. On countless freezing-cold and wet days, Connors was one of those who completed tackle after tackle in this manner and the long-term results are clear.
There isn’t a chop tackler like Connors in Irish rugby, with the Leinster man having continued to work hard on his technique in recent years to ensure his brave defensive efforts aren’t putting his own head at risk.
There’s no doubt that a few Italian ball-carrier woke yesterday morning with sore legs on account of some of 24-year-old Connors’ impactful work as the Ireland openside completed 18 tackles in a man-of-the-match performance on his Ireland debut.
Connors made four passes for Ireland, including one lovely tip-on to fellow former Clongowes student Tadhg Beirne, while the flanker also carried the ball himself 10 times for 36 metres and scored a try at the back of an excellent maul.
It’s important to note that there is more to Connors’ game than just tackling but there is no harm in highlighting his consistently excellent defensive work either. Rugby heavily praises players of attacking brilliance but defence is half of the game.
Speaking on Saturday evening after his successful first Ireland cap, Connors did say he doesn’t want to be seen as only a tackling machine.
“I’m constantly trying to work on my game,” said Connors. “I suppose I did get knocked back a few times but I’ll look at that, see what happened.
“I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I’m constantly trying to work on my weaknesses and I think that’s why the back row is so good – we’re all working together to try to get the best out of each other, picking each other’s brains to constantly improve.”
of the team
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Connors worked very well in tandem with CJ Stander and Caelan Doris in the back row on Saturday and it will be fascinating to see if Farrell backs that trio again in Paris this weekend. The openside has done as much as he could have to retain his place.
Connors – whose nickname ‘Porridge’ dates from Clongowes, where he was apparently addicted to microwaveable oats – first worked with Farrell at an Ireland training camp last December, which he was “quite surprised” to be included in but thoroughly enjoyed as the Ireland boss told him to back himself.
“He was just telling me to be confident,” recalls Connors. “It’s something I’m not really, it’s something in Leinster… the coaching staff are being incredible, telling me to be more confident in myself and just go out there and back myself.
“Faz said the same kind of stuff, he just wants everyone to go out there and enjoy it and express themselves and show why they’re there.”
Connors was outstanding for Leinster over the course of the 2019/20 season but had to wait until last month for his Champions Cup debut as he started in the quarter-final defeat to Saracens. He was initially a ‘development player’ with Ireland earlier this year but earned a full call-up just before the championship was put on hold due to Covid-19.
The flanker had actually been expected to play against Italy earlier this year so it was fitting that he got his debut in the rescheduled game on Saturday.
“Every boy’s dream is to play for Ireland,” said Connors. “I’ve had a few injury setbacks over the last while but constantly this was the goal, where I wanted to go.
“I kept trucking away. I knew my time would come if I just kept at it. It’s an unbelievably competitive position but that’s just the beauty of it – we are all pushing each other incredibly hard.”
Indeed, Farrell could consider Josh van der Flier or Peter O’Mahony’s skillsets as more suited to starting against France this weekend but Connors certainly left the Ireland boss with plenty of food for thought in suggesting he’s ready for Paris.
“We’ll see how the team unfolds but if I get the honour to be selected, it’s something I would be unbelievably excited for,” said Connors.
“There’s a lot of passion in this group and we know what we’re representing. We know we have the country behind us and that will just drive us forward, we will do the best we can.”