Thursday 30 March 2017

Sidelined McCarthy still has role in title drive

Mike McCarthy arrives for a Champions Cup pool game earlier this season (Sportsfile)
Mike McCarthy arrives for a Champions Cup pool game earlier this season (Sportsfile)

Marcus Ó Buachalla

For most in the Leinster ranks tonight's game against Ulster brings the curtain down on the RDS for the 2015/'16 season but for others that curtain hit the deck some weeks back. One of those is Mike McCarthy who was ruled out for the rest of the season having suffered a concussion in the Six Nations game against France in February.

As he oversees Leinster training in Rosemount, he is philosophical about his predicament.

"Look, I've been very fortunate with injuries. A week here or there, maybe four weeks at worst, so this is the first time in my whole career that I have had to sit out anything longer than four weeks.

"Is it frustrating? Of course it is. But what choice do I have? I'm just trying to be as supportive as I can with the lads, help them out on analysis pieces and little things here and there and if that contributes in some way to the collective against Ulster on Friday evening, then great."

There is though the unusual predicament of feeling fine.

Concussive

"Yeah, I suppose that is a difference to a 'normal' injury if you want to put it like that in that physically I feel fine. I've had no concussive issues since passing the Return to Play Protocols after that France game and I can train away on my own non-contact programme perfect. That being said, this is all for the right reasons and I have total faith in the IRFU and Leinster medical team and it is with my best interests at heart that I am taking this break."

That being said staying focused and motivated hasn't been easy.

"It's easier if it's a muscle tear or a break because I suppose physically you are not able; with this the body feels good and that's usually your main indicator of fitness or otherwise, so it's an unusual one to be honest.

"For me, as I said, I just want to finish out the season working away on my own fitness programme and contributing outside of that in whatever way I can to the team and come back on the 1st of July as good as I can, ready for next season."

While the season will end for McCarthy watching from the stands or running water and key messages to the players during the Play-Off, he does look back on his contributions over the season fondly.

"Thinking back, I was disappointed not to be included in that initial World Cup squad but I suppose I put the head down with Leinster and it was nice to be back in the mix then for the latter stages.

"Obviously I kicked on from there and was selected for the Six Nations and that was a real plus for me, forcing my way back into contention. I'd like to think that when I had my chances with Leinster I left a good impression on Leo (Cullen) and I suppose on Joe (Schmidt) but just a pity that I can't contribute this weekend or on the tour to South Africa."

There may be no on-field contribution but what has he seen in the analysis room that can help his team-mates out?

"Obviously I'd have been looking at the Ulster pack and the strength of their forwards and they are a formidable unit. Rory (Best), as Ulster and Ireland captain, brings a wealth of experience and there aren't many situations he hasn't come across.

"In knockout rugby when the intensity goes up and the stakes are at their highest, that is a huge plus being able to manage your way through various situations. Outside of that you have Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, proven internationals, and in Iain's case a player that can cause damage whether from the second-row or from flanker. That versatility is a huge plus for them and he's a destructive player."

That versatility isn't something associated with 34-year-old lock McCarthy anymore but it was a string that he had to his bow once upon a time and he even made his Irish debut from number six against Scotland.

"When I was at Wasps, Warren Gatland, my coach back then, saw me as a six so I would play some rugby at blindside and then some other games at lock. When I moved to Connacht and then to Newcastle it was the same, some games in the second-row and some in the back-row. But ultimately I think as you get older and possibly for me, slower, you need to nail down that position.

"That's not something that Iain has to do yet. He's a phenomenal athlete and the versatility he brings to the Ulster and Irish team is a huge plus at the moment and it's no coincidence that Ulster's form has picked up as he has returned to the fold."

That form has seen Ulster pick off four wins from their last four games, their best run of games of the season.

Add into the mix 18 tries in the same amount of games and a win against the league's top two teams, it's a statement not without merit.

"I think they've hit form at just the right time. Glasgow as well, although they came unstuck the last day against Connacht, but they had won eight on the bounce up to that point.

"We really have to be on our guard on Friday but I think it's brilliant to hear the RDS is a sell-out. Brilliant to hear that we've had to bring in more seats. That's what we all want. An occasion to be proud of and that can lift all of the players and I think that the players will respond in kind to that.

Duties

"The chance to run out in Edinburgh a week tomorrow in a Guinness Pro12 Final is not something this group of players want to let pass but Ulster are an extremely good side, well coached by Les Kiss, and we will need to play our best rugby of the season to get over the line."

With no on-field duties to contend with, McCarthy does have plenty of off-field matters to occupy his time over the coming weeks. Another house move - his seventh in ten years - is on the cards and he also has holiday plans for wife Jess and their eight-month-old daughter Lola.

"We've been going to Mallorca for as long as I can remember but it works for us. Jess also used to go as a kid so it's a place that we feel very comfortable in. We got married there and just knowing where to go, the good places to eat and visit, makes it very easy to do. It'll be good to get away and to get the body and mind ready for the start of pre-season in July. I can't wait to be honest."

For some it's all about the Friday night lights in the RDS, but others can be forgiven for looking a little further ahead.

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