Tuesday 26 September 2017

Luke McGrath: 'You have to earn your stripes in Ireland set-up'

Luke McGrath in action during Ireland training with his Connacht counterpart Kieran Marmion with Ireland. SPORTSFILE
Luke McGrath in action during Ireland training with his Connacht counterpart Kieran Marmion with Ireland. SPORTSFILE

Marcus Ó Buachalla

It's only a few days after the afternoon before and one of Ireland's latest Six Nations debutants is still buzzing from the weekend that was.

It's not often that you get to celebrate a victory over the old enemy on your tournament debut.

"The only word I can think of or that I keep coming back to is incredible. The whole build-up. Getting the nod from Joe on Thursday to say that I'd be involved and then getting the nod on match day to go on from Richie Murphy. Playing a part in a massive team and squad effort. Having all my family and friends there. It was everything I could have hoped for and more.

"Yet there we were in the shadows having our moment and there were England with the fireworks and the silverware. It was surreal and left what-ifs definitely."

Fresh from his first Championship involvement, what did he learn from his experience?

"I suppose the margins for a start. The smallest things can have the most impact.

Luke McGrath aims to shine with Leinster after a promising Six Nations. SPORTSFILE
Luke McGrath aims to shine with Leinster after a promising Six Nations. SPORTSFILE

"That first 20 minutes against Scotland, our slow start, arguably cost us some silverware.

"Also the physicality of it. I was only on the pitch for 15 minutes or so but it was fairly intense and you only need to look at the stats with only one try scored by either team in the 80 minutes.

"Defences at this level are playing at a different pitch, mistakes are rare because the quality of player is so consistent across all of the teams and we all saw that on Saturday. Space was at a premium."

That being said at one crucial juncture late in the game he found said space and clipped in a most delightful of kicks between their winger and full-back to put England deep inside their 22 with time almost up.

Conor Murray. SPORTSFILE
Conor Murray. SPORTSFILE

"I just looked up and saw the gap. In moments like that I think you just have to trust your instinct. Trust that the picture you've seen on the pitch is accurate and that you can deliver on the picture you've seen. It worked well for us and we managed to keep the pressure on thankfully and keep them inside their half for another while."

Optimistic

The Championship overall was a mixed bag for Ireland with an intact home record offset by losses to Scotland and Wales on the road but looking back over the full 12 months McGrath feels they have every reason to be optimistic heading into the summer tour.

"Going all the way back to last summer and the three Tests in South Africa and a first win there for any Irish team. Then to beat New Zealand, Canada and Australia and now to beat England in such a massive game.

"We've had new caps and players exposed to a new level of rugby and a new level of pressure. I think that can only be good for the team and I suppose for the provinces as well with a massive few months ahead.

"We probably just now need to bring a level of consistency to our performances but we've seen plenty of evidence to suggest we can do that and I think we are all energised by that and can't wait to get to grips with that challenge."

In that 12 months, the 24-year-old UCD scrum-half has made two appearances for Ireland. His debut against Canada - his country of birth - and his second cap against England at the weekend but he has been part of extended match-day squads on a number of occasions, most notably in Chicago for the All Blacks win.

As a result, the external narrative has all been about the back-up role to Conor Murray and the hierarchy there. While of course harbouring his own ambitions, he is also philosophical about a situation that sees him battle it out with Connacht's Kieran Marmion for that role.

"Of course it can be difficult being so close and being 24th man or whatever but you have to also be honest in your assessment of the situation. For a start this is only my first period of extended involvement with Ireland so you have to earn your stripes as it were.

"But also Conor is a superb athlete, a superb player and let's be honest he is also very durable. He doesn't miss many games but Joe (Schmidt) is excellent with Kieran and I and encourages us to bring our own qualities to training every day and to the match day.

"Conor is his own player and has his own qualities and we have ours so we have to make sure that we are making the decision as hard as possible for Joe. Hopefully the next few months will go well with Leinster and we'll see what happens after that and the summer tour."

That will be then. For now it is all eyes on a massive two weeks for Leinster Rugby. Cardiff Blues in the RDS and then Wasps in the Aviva Stadium.

"You can't get away from Wasps. Like the buzz and the excitement is unbelievable. I think there's over 44,000 tickets sold already so it's heading for a sell-out which would be brilliant to see.

"But you look at how tight it is at the top of the Guinness Pro12. If we slip up against Cardiff, either Ospreys or Munster could overtake us and we've said all along that we want the top-two finish for a home play-off.

"So we owe it to Cardiff and to ourselves to put all our efforts into the Pro12 this week and into the challenge that they offer. We only just beat them earlier this season so we are very familiar with the problems they can cause us."

This time last season they were certainly in the mix in the Pro12 but Leinster were looking on with envy as teams got set for the European knockout games. This year they're part of the conversation again.

Hardest

"It's the hardest part of the season because every team has something to fight for every week. So while it's great that we are fighting on two fronts this season we have to keep a narrow focus as we go because each challenge is unique.

"We've got Ospreys, Wasps obviously and Cardiff this weekend who are fighting for top six spot but they also have a Challenge Cup quarter-final the week after so they know that this plays a part in that build-up. So yeah regardless of who you play, everyone has something to fight for and that's what makes these weeks so special. Everyone going at it, with it all on the line. You know you will be tested but that is what drives you to be better and to perform hopefully to your potential."

A bit like last Saturday. With hopefully a similar outcome.

Irish Independent

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