Cool hand Luke hopes to put best foot forward
As Edinburgh visit the RDS today, no better time to take a trip down memory lane with Luke McGrath and to the first game of the season against the same opposition.
It was where last season finished in a try bonus point win with a debut for Cian Kelleher and the sun beating down upon them. But whereas then was Murrayfield, this was Meggetland. Same city, same opposition, but a million miles apart in terms of the setting.
“Yeah, Meggetland” the scrum-half smiles ruefully, “and when you compare it to where we finished up last season against Edinburgh it was chalk and cheese. The sunshine of Murrayfield and a perfect pitch to a miserable evening on a very sandy pitch. But that’s no excuse we should have been better, we had chances in that game but credit Edinburgh. They took theirs.”
In the blink of an eye September became December which became April and suddenly the 2015/’16 regular season is only three games from completion. It has flown by for McGrath.
“I don’t know where it has gone. I’ve enjoyed the season hugely. I suppose I’ve been building to this point. Building my experience in games. Minutes here and there and it all adds up but this season I have started more games than I have in all the other seasons combined. That helps you hugely.
“You are getting greater exposure working with and playing with the older guys for a start. Working with the likes of Johnny and Ian and getting more and more experience inside them because they have seen so much for Leinster and Ireland and even Johnny in France with Racing.
“That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing with Cathal or any of the other tens – of course I do – and I know Cathal better than anyone else having been in school with him. It’s more that these lads have been there and seen it all. Cathal and I are still very much starting out so it’s a very different partnership to when you play with the older lads.”
The stats bear witness to what he has outlined. He has made 15 starts for Leinster in his 45 games to date and ten of those have come this season including that magical day in January against Bath in the RDS.
“It’s definitely one of my personal highlights. OK we were out of Europe but Bath weren’t. They had all their internationals playing, were coming over fully loaded knowing that they needed points to keep their interest in the Champions Cup alive. And we stood up to them and by and large it was a very young and inexperienced team that did that.”
The front-row that evening of Dooley, Tracy and Furlong were all starting for the first time. Same Ross Molony, calling the lineouts from the second-row. Throw in Messrs Ringrose and McGrath and you get the picture. But little satisfaction will be taken from that experience unless lessons have also been learned.
“When we sit down next season as a group, we will be in a better place because of this season and what we have gone through. Is it a place we want to be? Of course not. We were all looking on with envy last weekend.
“But a gang of us have now seen that step up. Have seen what it takes to compete and win at that level and that when you are off, even by the slightest of percentages, you get punished.
“We were not good enough this season. Wasps and Toulon deserved to go through. End of. But I think we have put that behind us really well and have been able to focus on the Pro12 and that has stood us in good stead.”
A lesson could also be learned from looking at former Leinster player Jimmy Gopperth. Nearly twelve months on from the heartbreak of Toulon and the late missed drop goal, it was all on him again, but this time with Wasps.
“Jimmy is a brilliant lad, very humble. I enjoyed hugely my two years playing with him and even just getting to know him. So yeah, to see him land that conversion at the end after everything he went through on a personal level last year with us, you couldn’t but be delighted for him. Us not winning wasn’t down to him either but that’s how a lot of people boil games down to. Moments like that. But we had chances before that. Anyway…”
As his voice trails away you get the sense that there is a lot of European pain in the Leinster bank now and that it will come to the surface. Hopefully soon.
“Yeah possibly and I think our performances in the Pro12 this year are as a result of that. Our poor form in the league last season cost us in terms of seeding for Europe and we were very keen not to let that happen again. But in order for that to happen we have to finish out the next three games strongly and we can’t take our eyes off Edinburgh first up.”
Has he seen improvements since that opening day assignment in Meggetland?
“Absolutely. I think both teams have improved to be fair. Look at their pack. A front row of Scottish internationals, over 160 caps between them. They’ve done well to get Jason Tovey on loan from the Dragons until the end of the season. He can play against us and was brilliant for the Dragons against us earlier this season with 18 points for himself. So I think they’ve gone up a notch or two. But so have we and I think it will be a great game.”
Edinburgh first and then the small matter of the Irish camp on Sunday. He’s had a taste of similar camps before but an injury against Ulster in late November and seven weeks out of the game put paid to any opportunities to kick on and show form before the Six Nations. Fully fit now, he wants to push on.
“It’s great for myself and Garry (Ringrose) to be involved and to be in the mix for the camp. I suppose with a tour to South Africa coming up we all want to be in Joe Schmidt’s thoughts but Sunday is a short camp and really I think the main action will happen on the pitches between now and the end of the season. That is where we will really be marked.
“I was disappointed naturally to not be involved during the Six Nations but starting against Edinburgh that is the platform to put your best foot forward and I can’t wait to do just that. There is so much to play for this season still and we can all feel that intensity rising.”