We will need performance of our lives - Jack McGrath
Published 17/04/2015 | 02:30
'There is nothing like it." Jack McGrath has played in some of the finest stadia in world rugby but he doesn't mince his words when it comes to describing the Stade Felix Mayol in Toulon. It will take some beating, he reckons.
"Just thinking back on last year and you try to prepare for every little thing that might come your way. It was my first Heineken Cup quarter-final as well and the same for a few of the lads like Marty and Jordi.
"But what a place to go to and to experience that first taste of European knockout rugby. It was a cauldron of noise and everyone played their part. When you ran out for the warm-up and you saw the red of the Toulon fans and there was just so much blue from the Leinster fans.
"I think we had over 3,000 supporters there that day which is incredible. So then you have close to 16,000 fans wedged into it, with brass bands and chanting.
"And of course the Pilou Pilou before the game. The fans throwing the programmes in the air in the stands. I really could go on! It was nuts. Your mind is obviously very focused on the game but when all that is going on, and it's your first knockout game, it's hard not to take some of it in. And I think you have to. You have to enjoy those occasions as well."
The Pilou Pilou of course refers to the traditional pre-match Toulon war cry that the whole stadium roars. Created in the 1940s by club player Marcel Bodrero, it describes the Toulon players as warriors coming to the sea (the stadium is set by the marina) from the mountains. It will feature as part of Sunday's pre-match build-up but the rest will be different.
The Stade Velodrome in Marseille, rather than the Stade Felix Mayol will be the venue for this Champions Cup semi-final clash between the reigning two-time champions and Leinster.
"In as much as you try to treat every game the same and ultimately it is 15 against 15 on a rugby pitch, there is a reason why teams crave home advantage. So yes Toulon will be playing in front of a French crowd but being outside the Felix Mayol is no bad thing for us."
Munster played Toulon in the same venue in last season's semi-final and came within a whisker of knocking them out, losing 24-16 in an absorbing contest. Is there a template there for the men in blue on Sunday?
"Not so much a template as I think we are very different to Munster and to be fair both our squad and the Toulon squad would be quite different even in the space of just one season. They've lost Johnny Wilkinson and we've lost the likes of Brian and Leo. "But Munster were only five points behind right up until the 80th minute. That's a converted try between them and a win. So they came very close to doing a job on Toulon," adds McGrath.
"They were underdogs too, much like ourselves, so maybe we can look at that and take heart from knowing that it is ultimately 15 against 15 and when that whistle goes we are all human and every team is there to be beaten.
"It's a semi-final too, 80 minutes from a European final and anything can happen. On big stages we have performed in the past and for me personally this is progress for us as a group and individually. A first semi-final and I'm relishing the opportunity."
Of course last season the round before that Munster-Toulon game was the fixture in the Stade Felix Mayol which Leinster lost 29-14. McGrath came off the bench with 20 or so minutes to go. A template there of what not to do, says the St Mary's man.
"We played really well for the first 40. We had dominance in the scrum and I think a few handling errors let us down. We left definitely a try or two out there. So we felt good at half-time at six all. But we gave them an in at the start of the second half and they rarely pass up those chances and to be fair to them they didn't. They were clinical. They added 23 points in that second 40."
So what gives him hope that this time can be different? That the formbook can be thrown out the window?
"You look at the talent that Toulon have and you'd wonder! How do we compete with this? They are like the Real Madrid team of a few years back. A who's who of rugby talent in one team. Toulon are really that special. But you have to look at the talent that we have and we have to back each other. We have guys in our dressing room who have won in France with Leinster and Ireland. Who have won Heineken Cups, Amlin Cups and Pro12 titles. Who have won Grand Slams and Six Nations. We have a team of leaders and we will give it everything we have on Sunday. It's a once-off game and in sport anything is possible."
Is it fair then to have them as such underdogs?
"It's not an insult if that's what you mean. We haven't performed in the Pro12 to the level we would like so it's fair for people to doubt us or to think that we can't just flick a switch. But that is irrelevant to us within the squad.
"In Europe when the chips have been down, we have managed to get results when it has mattered. We finished top of our pool. We got a home quarter-final. We beat Bath. There won't be many teams beating Bath in the Premiership between now and the end of the season. So we may not be used to this situation, but what do you do? I know what I hope we'll do."
Last year's Leinster Player of the Year hasn't seen many days like this in a blue jersey but he is relishing the prospect.
"Nobody enjoys the position we find ourselves in in the Pro12, be that the older guys or the younger lads, but we have to try to forget about the Dragons last weekend and other performances and instead channel all of our energy into one season-defining game.
"Sean Cronin said earlier in the week that we would need the performance of the season. I think we will need the performance of our lives. But isn't that a great place to be in?
"All that work that you put in and it coming down to the wire like this? It's an unbelievable task against the best club team in world rugby. But I believe in the lads around me in that dressing room and I know that we can do it. We can put together that performance that we can all be proud of."