Rugby-Conan revels in rapid rise to Lions starter after injury nightmare

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Stormers v British and Irish Lions - Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town, South Africa - July 17, 2021 British and Irish Lions' Jack Conan scores their fourth try REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Jack Conan admits the British & Irish Lions were the furthest thing from his mind at the start of 2021 as he struggled with a succession of injuries that kept him out of the Ireland team for over a year.

The number eight has been chosen by coach Warren Gatland ahead of Taulupe Faletau and Sam Simmonds when the Lions face world champions South Africa in the first of three tests in Cape Town on Saturday, a selection that has raised more than a few eyebrows.

By his own admission, it has been a struggle for the 28-year-old over the last few years with a number of set-backs, the latest a neck injury, which have resulted in him making only 20 appearances for Ireland since his debut six years ago.

"At the start of the year it was just about getting fit again and not having these constant set-backs. The Lions (tour) was not on top of my list, far from it really," Conan told reporters on Thursday.

"But I have been taking it game-by-game and enjoying it more. It shows in my performances that I'm playing better now than I ever have before.

"I had to stay patient with all the set-backs. It means a lot to be here now."

Conan has not played alongside starting flankers Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes as a combination before, but is not concerned about their lack of familiarity.

"We’ve bonded well as a back row, not just myself and the two lads, but everyone. We are there helping each other every day to get better."

He has also received support from the two players left disappointed by his selection, but says he is well aware they are waiting in the wings to take his place.

"Taulupe and Sam were among the first to come up and congratulate me, which is testament to their characters. They are great blokes.

"I’ve not looked past this weekend, I am delighted to get the nod for this (game) but I am not looking any further forward than that."

As for why he got the nod to start, he is less sure, and admits it was a little unexpected.

"I have been pretty consistent the last few (warm-up) games. I have tried to show what I am about every chance I was given.

"It was fantastic to hear my name being called out (to start). I think it is natural to doubt yourself, so it was an anxious time when he (Gatland) was announcing the team.

"Hearing my name called out was surreal. I don’t think it gets any bigger than this."

(Reporting by Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis)

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