Sunday 30 April 2017

Thrown in at the deep end - and making a splash

James Tracy, pictured playing Zebre, admits he feels the pressure in the RDS Picture: Sportsfile
James Tracy, pictured playing Zebre, admits he feels the pressure in the RDS Picture: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

What a difference a year makes and for James Tracy the difference between Round 5 of the Champions Cup this season and Round 5 last season could not be more pronounced.

"The big difference is the pressure. Friday night in the RDS is the biggest game of our season, in front of hopefully another full house and with a European quarter-final at stake for us," he says.

"That's a position that most of us haven't been in before and it's hugely exciting."

Take a step back to this time last year. The venue was the same, the competition the same, the same penultimate stage but everything else was different. Tracy sets the scene.

Stats

"With a World Cup year we were straight into Europe and straight into that Wasps game in the RDS and when you look back at it I think all of our stats for that game were positive," he recalls. "Our territory, possession, everything. All in our favour.

"But ultimately all that matters is the stat at the end and Wasps ran out comfortable winners.

"Then the losing bonus point away against Bath isn't a bad result but when we already had the loss to Wasps and then Toulon away to come. . . before we knew it we had four losses to our names and it was the first time that had happened in Europe for Leinster.

"Bath were next up again and Leo (Cullen) decides to throw myself and five other lads in from the start for our first starts in Europe.

"Bath were going strong for qualification and came loaded with their top players and here we were facing into our first starts in Europe. Myself and the two props, the full front-row, were in the same boat.

"Okay, Tadhg (Furlong) had more game-time under his belt than Peter Dooley and myself but it was still a unique position to be in. We had Ross Molony behind us in the second-row. First start for him too. And then we beat them!"

He says the last bit with a smile and well he might. Many questioned Cullen's selection. Was it not more important to put on a show for the home support, for the last home game in Europe that season, than to try out these rookies? But no. Give youth a chance was the message.

"There was no pressure. Genuinely. We were told to just go out there and play the game," says Tracy. "To enjoy it. That means a huge amount to young players into that sort of environment.

"And I think we took massive lessons from that game and we've been able to grow and mature as a group since then into lads who are able to now challenge regularly for starting or bench positions and to put real pressure on more senior players."

That role is likely to be replicated at national level over the coming weeks for the 25-year-old Kildare native. Tracy made his Ireland debut in the autumn against Canada, scoring a try after coming on. With a Six Nations around the corner, playing well for Leinster will have him in the national shop window.

"Look of course I'd love to be in that conversation but first and foremost I have to look after my detail with Leinster over the next two weekends," he says.

"It's a massive test for us as a squad and I have to work very hard with Richardt (Strauss) and with Bryan (Byrne) to make sure that we are in the best place possible to perform for Leinster. Hopefully Sean (Cronin) won't be out for too long either.

"If we can push each other on and drive the standards everyone benefits and then it leaves Leo and the coaches with a decision. I can't control anything else after that."

Speaking of Ireland and further honours, I remind him of a chat that he had with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt (left) a few years back.

"Yeah, Joe and I had a chat when he was Leinster coach and back then I was a prop," he explains. "His advice was very simply around me wanting to progress to the next level and he felt that I had a better chance of making it as a hooker than as a prop.

"It was a gamble but one that I am obviously glad I took. An Irish cap wasn't really on my radar this season but you grab those chances with both hands.

"There wasn't a moment in Carton House where we spoke about it or anything like that but it was nice to be in there.

"It was business first and foremost but it was nice to be in there, and in there under Joe, having taken the journey after his advice. Full circle in many ways."

So 12 months ago there was no pressure. Come what may, just go out and enjoy yourself.

But now there is pressure. There is much as stake in terms of the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup and there is the small matter of a team coming to the RDS in rude health.

Montpellier have had recent wins over Toulon and Bordeaux and know that a win in the RDS puts them back in the group, while a bonus point win puts them level on points with Leinster.

And unlike most French teams, they travel well.

"I think back to the game over there in October and it's the most physical game that I have ever played in," says Tracy.

"There were no weaknesses. Massive pack. Massive backs but also lads that can play so it was a very fast game, especially given the conditions.

Drilled

"Look at their results in the TOP14 and the way they have been playing lately and they've a nice bit of form. They are well drilled by (former South Africa coach) Jake White.

"When we played them the last day it was wet and the pitch was heavy but I don't think that will be the case on Friday. The RDS is like a snooker table usually and we're expecting a dry crisp night so that will suit them too.

"They know that one win puts them back in the hunt and then they would have Northampton at home a week later to get out of the pool possibly as pool winners. And as we know Northampton are out of it at this stage.

"So yeah, it's a huge task on Friday but the flipside of that is how special a night it could be for us as a club, for the supporters in the RDS and for us as a squad if we managed to get the win."

So plenty of pressure. But plenty still to be enjoyed too.

Irish Independent

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