Mullingar native Conor Gilsenan tells Damian Dolan why he’s emotionally committed to keeping London Irish in the Premiership
Conor Gilsenan can’t help but raise a chuckle at the thought of being England-qualified, although it’s unlikely we’ll see the back row forward wearing the Red Rose any time soon, or indeed at all.
His three years at London Irish, since joining from Leinster in 2014, are enough to allow England supremo Eddie Jones to start casting an eye in Gilsenan’s direction, should he care to do so.
But Gilsenan, who captained Ireland at Under 18, Under 19 and Under 20 level, still harbours dreams of one day wearing the green of Ireland.
“It’s crazy that I’m now English qualified,” said Gilsenan. “I never envisaged that happening when I initially came over.
“It’s always been my dream [to play for Ireland]. First I need to establish myself as a regular in the London Irish team, but that would be the dream end goal alright, to pull on a green jersey.”
Clearly enjoying life at Irish, and London life in general, Gilsenan signed his second contract extension with the Exiles at the end of last season.
Having helped the Exiles return to the Premiership at the first attempt by winning the Championship, he’s now committed to keeping it there.
“We certainly don’t plan on finishing the season where we are at the moment,” he said. Eleventh in the Premiership table after the league’s grueling opening six-week block of fixtures, the club has enjoyed a whirlwind return to English rugby’s top-flight.
A five-point win over Harlequins at the London Double Header raised expectations, but the Exiles were brought down to earth in the weeks that followed by reigning champions Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints, Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons. Four games, no points.
“We were very confident going into the Quins game. We’re very familiar with Quins having trained against them a lot in the past year when we were down in the Championship. We felt that we had the beating of them if we performed well on the day, which we did,” said Gilsenan.
It [the Premiership] was always going to be a tough ask, and we never really got a foot-hold against Exeter Chiefs. It was certainly a reality- check.
“I’d be lying if I said losing wasn’t difficult – it’s brutal. I take them to heart. We’re a tight-knit group and we’re all emotionally invested in this.
“London Irish isn’t just a team we play for, and when we lose it’s water off a duck’s back. We’re all very much emotionally invested in this and we’re on a big journey together.”
No better place was that last sentiment illustrated than in the Exiles’ dramatic late fightback against Leicester Tigers to earn what could prove to be a crucial bonus-point with Alex Lewington crossing from the last play of the game.
While still a fifth straight loss for Irish, in the context of the Exiles’ season a point, and the manner of its collection, that could have huge significance. There’s plenty of fight in this Irish side, and players and coaches alike are up for the immense challenge that is the Aviva Premiership.
“You could sense it around the stadium. We all celebrated as if we’d won the game when Alex went over at the end,” said Gilsenan, who feels the team are definitely “going in the right direction”.
A sentiment reinforced by the Exiles’ stunning European Challenge Cup win over Stade Francais in Paris in which Gilsenan scored the opening try in a 44- 7 win.
“We’ve got a game plan we believe in, which is based around exiting efficiently, playing in the right parts of the field and then executing when we get our opportunities. If we can master that, then we can beat teams. We proved it in Round 1 against Harlequins.”
For Gilsenan, the Exiles have been their own worst enemies with lapses in concentration proving very costly. Errors are punished with far more regularity in the Premiership than they are in the Championship, a fact the Exiles learnt the hard way in those opening weeks.
“If you switch off for a second these teams will punish you. We do so much good stuff in games, but we really get punished for our lapses in concentration,” he said.
“You make a mistake in the Championship and you can get away with it, but this year when teams break our line they’re either scoring straightaway or scoring from the next phase. It’s pretty brutal. The quality of the attack is the main step up.
“Going forward, we feel if we can cut out those loses in concentration we can pick up more wins.”
Irish’s collective team spirit, evident against Leicester, was also visible at Newcastle Falcons in Round 5 when the Exiles trailed 27-3 but fought back with two tries to get within touching distance of a losing bonus.
So while they’ve been guilty of some slow starts, Irish have been finishing games strongly. A testament to the environment forged during the club’s season in the Championship.
“A lot of the core group were there when we were relegated. We learnt a lot from that season,” he said.
“Even when it might seem like a lost cause, and we’re two or three tries down, we keep fighting to the end to try and pick up those bonus points because they will stand to you towards the end of the season. They’re massive.”
The club’s relegation season was a doubly frustrating one for Gilsenan, who was forced to sit out most of it due to injury. However, Gilsenan describes the Championship season which followed as his “most enjoyable” as a professional rugby player, and not just because Irish were winning most weeks.
“When Nick [Kennedy] took over with all of the other academy coaches, and Brendan [Ventor] came in, it was a breath of fresh air,” he said.
“They listened to the players and they truly believe that we’re a good bunch of guys who want the best for the club.
“We gelled as a group and got better, but it was all about putting a plan in place that would work for us this year.
“We were always looking at the bigger picture. It wasn’t just about winning the Championship, it was about being a competitive outfit in the Premiership.
“When we were reviewing games we’d ask ourselves ‘is this good enough for the Premiership?’.
“Having experienced what it’s like in the Championship I’ll never take for granted playing in top stadia, like Twickenham, and in big games.”
Twickenham and the London Double Header was a far cry from playing Gaelic Football for Mullingar Shamrocks, although a career in GAA was never really on the cards for Gilsenan despite being good enough to attract the attention of Westmeath Minors.
He attended the renowned rugby school, Clongowes Wood College, in Kildare which has produced the likes of Gordon D’Arcy, Rob and Dave Kearney, and Fergus McFadden.
Gilsenan won three school medals during his six years at Clongowes, in a side which contained Leinster front row twins Ed and Bryan Byrne as well as Jordan Coghlan, who is now at Nottingham.
When he was 17 he was called into the Westmeath Minor team, but by that stage Gilsenan was already intent on pursuing a career as a professional rugby player. He only trained with the Minor team once before he was selected by Ireland Under 18. Forced to chose, he followed his heart and that meant rugby.
“While I love Gaelic it didn’t offer a career path and I had my mind set on being a professional rugby player, so my decision was made for me,” he said.
A decision which no doubt was well received by his “rugby mad” father, who owns Con’s – a renowned rugby pub in Mullingar.
The path to pro rugby player hasn’t been entirely smooth, however. He joined the Leinster Academy straight from school only to be released after three years, a moment which Gilsenan freely admits was “bitterly disappointing”.
“I was gutted, but you’ve just got to pick yourself up and figure out where you’re going to go next,” he said.
Within a week he was given an opportunity join Connacht on loan for three months until the end of the season, due to an injury crisis in their back row, and he made his first professional appearance at Connacht. During that time he received an offer to join London Irish for the 2014/15 season.
Having sort of the advice of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, who both forged successful careers in England, he made the leap, and he hasn’t looked back.
“I loved the opportunity to go and play in the Premiership. They [Leo and Shane] spoke very highly of the league, so I decided to accept the offer and it’s been great. I’ve had the chance to test myself in a very tough league.”
He’s also adjusted well to London life although he admits to wishing his mum still owned her flat in Chiswick, west London.
“I’m cursing her because I could be living rent free!” he says.
“When I first came over to London I said to myself I wouldn’t just stick to an Irish group [of people] I’d immerse myself in different groups and people and I think I’ve done that. I’ve met loads of cool people and experienced London in full flow.
“There was a handful of Irish people over here that I knew when I came over initially. As I’ve gotten older, and people around my age have got their degrees, there’s more and more moving over, so I’ve now got a great little Irish community and we go and watch Irish bands and whenever Westmeath are playing we’ll find an Irish pub to watch it.
“We’ve already got a pub lined up for Ireland vs Denmark.” London, and London Irish, is clearly agreeing with Gilsenan.
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