We sat down with new Saint, Conor Carey, after the tighthead prop made his debut in Black, Green and Gold last weekend in the Premiership Rugby Cup clash against London Irish…
Q: You’re a new face for Northampton Saints supporters. Could you tell us a bit about how you started out in rugby?
CC: I started out at Ulster – I went to a big rugby school, called Methody (Methodist College). After school, I went into the Academy and did three years there. I didn’t play at Ulster, but it was a good place to be – Ulster were probably the second-best team in Europe, after Leinster, at the time. It was a great place to learn and there were some very good props there, like BJ Botha and John Afoa. For me to get game time, I went to Ealing Trailfinders.
In the first year, they were promoted into the Championship and, at 21, I was the starting tighthead and I got a lot of experience there. Even though we got relegated, I got to play a lot of rugby and I learned a lot. Once they went down, I went to Nottingham and I had two great years there. I only missed one game in the two years.
Q: And you then went back to play in Ireland?
CC: I was lucky enough that Connacht came calling, and it was the year that they won the PRO14, so I joined that summer. It was a team on the up and I got to play quite a lot – Finlay Bealham was the other tighthead who I was competing against and one of our looseheads got injured, so he ended up moving across. I started ten of the first 12 games, including four Champions Cup games, which gave me a lot of great experience. Unfortunately, I got injured but I came back in the last game of the season, which was a European play-off game against Northampton at the Gardens. We lost that game, but it was a great experience coming here and the atmosphere was unbelievable. That was my first time playing here and it leaves a memory when you play in a really good place. I then had two more years at Connacht and I really enjoyed it.
Ultimately, I have a fond spot for Ulster, obviously, but Connacht are my Irish club now. They’re the team I would support in the United Rugby Championship and I love Galway. I obviously love Belfast – it’s home – but when it comes to rugby, they’re the team I would support, after Northampton, obviously!
Q: How was your first experience of the Gallagher Premiership, at Worcester Warriors?
CC: I got to play a good bit, early on, but I then did my Achilles and I had a few niggling injuries, coming back from that, so I only ended up playing four more games after. It was unfortunate because I felt I’d just turned a corner last March, and I was starting against London Irish in the Premiership, and I ruptured my bicep. That was my season done and, at the time, I thought I was going to pack it in.
Q: How tough was it trying to find a new club after leaving Worcester?
CC: During the summer, I was out of contract, sitting in London and just training a bit, but not training that much. I was just looking at options, waiting to see if something came up. I went to Nevers, a Pro D2 club in France, for about a week, but it just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a place I could see myself living or spending time, and the day I came back from that I got a call from Perpignan and they said, ‘why don’t you come over on a Medical Joker contract for three months?’
It’s such a big club and my best mate, Paddy Jackson, played there before. I went out there a few times that year and Connacht played against them in Europe, so I knew the area a bit, I knew the atmosphere of the stadium and knew how passionate they were. The three months I spent there helped me fall in love with rugby again. My body felt a lot better and I was waking up every day with it being 25 degrees as well! It was a totally different training environment, in terms of types of training, types of rugby you play, and just being able to go to the beach every day, being able to go to Barcelona on a day off because it was an hour-and-45-minutes down the road. It helped me to see how much I loved rugby again, then when this opportunity at Saints came up – because I played here with Worcester and with Connacht – it was a very easy decision. I got out of my contract [at Perpignan] two weeks early to come here.
Q: We hear that you actually helped Alex Waller recover from his Achilles injury last year?
CC: I did mine in January and Sue did his around the end of February/March time. When I was at Connacht, they had knee scooters. I was off the scooter by this point and I said to Ethan, ‘does Alex want this?’ We played Northampton that week as well, so it was easy to give him the scooter. It was good that it got used again!
Q: How much are you enjoying being around the squad at Saints, and how much are you enjoying the chance to get a bit of game time this month?
CC: It’s great. I knew when I came in that the first two games were in the Premiership and I wasn’t going to play in them. We talked about that, and I needed two or three weeks of hard training to get up to speed, and they were probably going to bleed me in for these Premiership Rugby Cup games. I’d been training a lot with the group that played [against London Irish] and I was getting to know them as rugby players, so I think it made the transition into the team easier.
Q: Looking ahead to Harlequins on Friday night, how keen are the team to get back to winning ways, after a tricky couple of weeks?
CC: We’ll be putting out a similar team [to last week] and if we start like we did when we came out for the second half, it could be a good result for us. I think it will be a great game as well – they want to play rugby, we want to play rugby. We do have a good bit of experience in the team; Mikey Haywood, Manny Iyogun is young but he’s played quite a lot recently. You’ve got Alex Coles and Alex Moon in the second row. We do have a bit of youth, but we’ve good a good bit of experience – the backline is experienced, Karl Wilkins has played incredibly for the last five years, and he’ll step up and carry all day long.
The young kids fitted in seamlessly – it wasn’t like they were children getting a shot, they are men. There’s a photo of me with all the other debutants and I’m about a foot shorter than everyone else, and I’m six feet! I was unlucky to be next to Tommy Lockett, but even the rest of them seem to be a lot bigger than when I was in the Academy…
Q: How excited are you about the months ahead? There’s certainly going to be plenty to play for.
CC: When you look at it, we’ve got about 13 games on the bounce, once the Premiership restarts. For me, I look at that and Hilly and Ehren can’t play every game, so I want to put my best foot forward in these weeks and show that I can mix in with them and push them. I can let them have a rest as well, but I want to show that I’m on the same level and that, if I play, there’s not going to be a drop in form and that I can give them something the other two boys can’t do. I just want to add to the tighthead group, which I think is a great group. Everyone works well together; everyone gets on and it’s just something I’m really looking forward to. There are some great games coming up – there’s Ulster, there’s Racing in Europe and there are lots of big Premiership games. It’s going to be a great block.