Wednesday 26 October 2016

Jack McGrath staying rock steady with his eye on the prize

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

'Pretty much everything about McGrath on a rugby field suggests a man who loves his work' Photo: Sportsfile
'Pretty much everything about McGrath on a rugby field suggests a man who loves his work' Photo: Sportsfile
Jack McGrath: 'It could all change just like that. I know it didn’t last weekend but that’s just what I was trying to do. Basically concentrate on one scrum at a time'

Interview almost over and the issue of both Jack McGrath and Cian Healy staying at the one club raises its head - as in, three-year contract extensions for each when it would be reasonable to think they might want to go in opposite directions. It's unusual for players of that quality to be contesting the same position for club as well as country.

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And their quality is not an issue. Cian Healy is already a Lion, having gone to Australia in 2013 only to be crocked before he got warmed up. And if the tour to New Zealand was this summer instead of 2017, then McGrath would be one of the first names on the squad. At 26 years of age, and with 27 caps to his name, you wonder how good he will be when that squad is being selected. The unusual thing for such an unassuming fella is how quick he is to declare his intentions.

"We both want to be the best two loose-heads in the world," he says. "And he (Healy) already is, so I want to try and get as good as him. I think having the two of us on the same team is good for the team. What both of us want is the best for the team. Neither of us are mé féiners. We do everything for the team, everything for our team-mates, so to have two of us on the team. . . I play 50 and he plays 30 or vice versa, it doesn't really matter. We're building a bond. We're good buddies. It's a good place to be. Leinster's an exciting place to be for the next three years, and so is Ireland."

Given the blank drawn by the Irish provinces in Europe, and the virtual disappearance of Joe Schmidt's chances of a hat-trick of Six Nations titles, excitement and Ireland have not been appearing too often lately in the same sentence. McGrath is unfazed by it all. If Ireland were two from two at this point of the Championship instead of a half from two, then it's hard to imagine him being any more upbeat. It looks like he's living the dream.

Pretty much everything about McGrath on a rugby field suggests a man who loves his work. Since his debut for Leinster more than five years ago he has developed into a top quality scrummager with a phenomenal work-rate. To date in the championship his tackles-completed count is 31, more than twice that of the next best loose-head, Wales's Rob Evans. He looks like he could go forever.

"You take into account the amount of tackles and carries and scrums but I think I'm just getting more confident at the level and getting used to the pace of it," he says. "Yeah I was pretty sore after the first two games but the recovery over the six days. . . I think I didn't train until the Wednesday or Thursday after the Wales game, which gave me a couple of days to recover. Then we had a couple of days off this week. The body does recover. You get used to it over years and years of playing."

With that experience has come a reputation as one of the best operators on the circuit. Saturday in Twickenham will be his fourth Test against England - with one win from three so far - and a chance to slow down a chariot that already has developed a fair bit of momentum since the World Cup disaster. The hype developing around England and their new coach doesn't alter the issue for him.

"I don't think it changes to be honest, playing England in Twickenham, I think everyone in Ireland would give their left arm to be there or play there. I find it's a really emotional day, any time playing there. It's a great place to play. It's that bit more special, because they're your real rivals. I'm really looking forward to it now. I wish we could be playing it this weekend, but we've another week of good prep to come, and it's going to be hopefully a great day."

And Dan Cole, whom he did well against in that World Cup warm-up when the Irish pack relieved England of two of their five put-ins to the scrum?

"I don't want to speculate in saying anything like that now," he says. "He's going to be looking at that and he's going to come not wanting to lose two scrums against the head. He's going to get two himself so it's down to me not to sit on my laurels and say 'I got them last year, I'll get them this year'. He'll have changed coming up against me and will have seen some things in the Wales game, as we would have seen in their Scotland and Italy games. A lot of video work, and a lot of technical work coming up."

Despite shifts in the laws over the years, not much changes in the nature of the scrum battle. Frequently hard to watch, blighted by the tedium of collapses and resets, you wonder what goes through the mind of a prop forward when his pack are under pressure under their own sticks. And the crowd is hollering at the referee to ramp it up. As in Paris last week.

"It's a tough one. I've seen it, watching it at home being a spectator, and being in there myself there's definitely a feeling 'something is going to happen here,' but when you're out there you can't let that creep into your mind. You just need to back yourself, back what you've been doing all week. Trust your hooker, trust your tight-head, trust your locks and just trust everyone around you and do what you've done to get you there.

"I know it's a little bit of a clichéd answer but you really do just have to back your basics and not take the next scrum as it comes. It could all change just like that. I know it didn't last weekend but that's just what I was trying to do. Basically concentrate on one scrum at a time."

It didn't work in Paris where he considered trying to get into the head of referee Jaco Peyper, but thought better of it in the din that was Stade de France. It won't be a lot calmer on Saturday. McGrath's default at the moment is that a draw and a defeat by just one point suggest Ireland haven't fallen off the edge of the earth. And that a win is around the corner. It would be good for the team, and good for man whose quest to be the best is on the right track.

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