While the majority of Ireland players arrived back from New Zealand on a high, Jack Conan was experiencing mixed emotions.

The 30-year-old played his part in a historic tour, featuring in four of the five matches including all three Tests against the All Blacks.

However, on each occasion Conan found himself playing the role of impact replacement.

He had started five of Ireland's eight internationals leading into the New Zealand tour, as well as all three British and Irish Lions Tests the previous summer, but a bout of Covid over Christmas contributed to his form dipping during the Six Nations and he fell behind Munster's Peter O'Mahony in the back row pecking order.

Conan celebrates with Johnny Sexton after Ireland's series-clinching win in Wellington

He was sprung from the bench for the final quarter of all three Tests against New Zealand, but his total game time of 52 minutes felt unsatisfactory.

"Firstly, I was delighted to be involved and to be down there and be part of such a great squad and make a bit of history," said Conan.

"Obviously I would have loved to have had a bit more involvement than I did but that's just the way it is. I probably hadn't done myself enough justice in the months previous to that for a few different reasons.

"At the end of the day I was just happy to be there and just happy to be involved. It was a great few weeks away with a good bunch of lads.

"It's something that even when you retire, you'll look back on to say you were part of that first ever Irish team to go down there and win a Test and then a series. It was something really special.

"[I'm] grateful but I think I left a little bit out there as well, which is a little bit disappointing on a personal note."

Ireland trio Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter and Conan are poised to return with Leinster

That disappointment has given Conan added motivation heading into a big 12 months for Irish rugby. Some alterations during pre-season have put him in a better place as the countdown to next year’s Rugby World Cup begins.

Asked if this was potentially his biggest season since turning professional, Conan replied: "It probably is in some regards after the disappointment of three years ago at the last World Cup where I had to go home early through injury [broken foot] and I felt I never really got my shot on the biggest stage.

"I played against Scotland in that first game but I didn’t get a run, a good crack at it. I suppose when you hang up your boots and you look back you want to say you gave it your best on the biggest stage and that’s definitely what I want to do leading up to next year.

"I know it’s 12 months away but for me mentally and physically it starts now."

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Leinster were a little jittery in their opening BKT United Rugby Championship win over Zebre but it looked like a pre-season friendly for them, said Darren Cave on Against The Head

Conan has a point to prove, and so do Leinster after a trophyless campaign. The previous time they finished a season empty-handed was in 2017, and they responded by winning a league and European double.

"Winning makes you weak to some degree and now that we have gone last season without a win for the first time since 2017 that bit of despair drives the desire massively," said Conan.

"In 2017, when we came back in after that season we spoke about it as the almost year. We almost made the final of Europe and the final of the league so it definitely makes lads a lot hungrier and the coaches - not that you could ever question people in here resting on their laurels because we have won previously.

"There is a constant desire to grow as a unit but we are definitely hungrier than we have been for a long time after going a season without any silverware, and being so close.

"Against La Rochelle we were 60 seconds away from winning that final. That makes it more hurtful. It stings. It’s a feeling we never want to have again and it spurs everyone on in this building."

Having opened their BKT United Rugby Championship season in unconvincing fashion against Zebre, where some defensive lapses almost proved costly, Leinster face further Italian opposition at the RDS on Friday when Benetton travel to Dublin buoyed by their 22-point hammering of Glasgow in round one.

"They have gone from being underdogs years previously and are just growing as a club," he said. "They have really arrived and they have got some fantastic talent, especially in the back row, just speaking from my own corner of the world.

"They are not underdogs any more. They are really well coached, incredibly physical, they have got a big pack and then the ability to exploit spaces out wide as well with the likes of Rhyno Smith and players of his calibre.

"They are definitely a team which has gained a lot of experience and come really good in the last 12 months."

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