Tough tests lie ahead for Luke McGrath
Rising Leinster scrum-half planning to graduate with honours on and off pitch
The end is most definitely nigh. Knockout rugby is getting ever closer, but, for some in the Leinster changing room, there is plenty of other things to occupy their minds. Like the 23 or so members of the Leinster Academy who are facing end-of-year exams.
"It's not ideal," explained young scrum-half Luke McGrath. "But it is part and parcel of the set-up here, balancing your rugby career with your academic life and while it can be a challenge, I think that most of us have the balance pretty much right."
The Leinster Academy has been lauded for their approach at home and abroad as they take a holistic view of the players' development. The three-year contracts obviously revolve around rugby, but they also include some form of third-level education and, for McGrath, that means a Commerce Degree in UCD.
"I definitely took on too much in my first semester when I elected to take all my modules in the one go, so I learned the hard way! Since then I have scaled back somewhat, so instead of six modules a semester, I might take four. It lengthens the duration of my degree to five years rather than three, but it is far more manageable."
There is a support structure within Leinster for the rising stars, be that in the form of Girvan Dempsey or John Fogarty, but there is also the understanding, from an academic point of view, that sometimes the dog will have eaten the homework and some room for manoeuvre is required.
"Less so with training, but sometimes, especially at this time of the year when the games are of more importance, there is a clash.
"To be fair to UCD, they are very accommodating whether that is allowing me to sit exams at another time on my own or, indeed, facilitating an extra day on assignments. The work still has to be done, but having the backing of people like Eamonn Delahunt, Ann O'Hanlon, Bobby Byrne and Orlaith McGourty is invaluable. They know the ins and outs and their door is always open."
Next year, though, McGrath will leave the Academy behind, as it was announced this week that he had signed his first full-time contract with the province.
"It was definitely a proud moment. As you make your way through the Academy it's always in the back of your mind. What you are working for and striving for every day, that full contract.
"Over the last six months or so, I have been training more or less on a full-time basis with the senior squad anyway, so that gave me a huge boost and you know you must be doing something right. The contract process I left to others to sort out – as a player you just want to play – but Guy (Easterby) and Girvan (Dempsey) were very helpful in taking me through the process."
Did he always think he'd make it? "There are dark days, don't get me wrong, where you are seeing little game time, but that is also part of the process.
"Learning to adapt to those situations and to look upon every session as a chance to learn from the more experienced players around you. You learn to be patient as well as the chances will come."
Another critical point to the Academy system is that, by and large, they train with the senior squad, so for a young scrum-half like McGrath, that means seeing experienced Irish internationals like Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss up close and personal every day.
"One of my first sessions was actually down in Carlow and I remember the little bits of advice that they gave me that day. You can't put a price on that sort of exposure. Seeing how they apply themselves and their work rate. Both Eoin and Isaac and John Cooney as well have been of huge help to me as I look to develop and grow as a player.
"I have also been lucky that over the last two years I have had decent runs with the Leinster 'A' team that culminated last year in a B&I Cup final win against Newcastle and we have the 2014 final now in a few weeks against Leeds at home."
It really is exciting times for the Dubliner. With Reddan nursing a shoulder injury there have been a few eye-catching cameos of late, most notably against Treviso on Good Friday in the Pro12 where he looked sharp and alert. One of his breaks set up a try for Noel Reid, another created a try for himself.
"I loved it. I got nearly half an hour of game time and at that stage we were up a few scores, so we could express ourselves a little bit more.
"It was a dry ball and a brilliant evening for it, so, yeah, it was nice to touch down for my first try for Leinster. Hat tip to Rhys (Ruddock) for the pass, though, and to do it in the RDS with my family looking on made it all the sweeter."
Exams aside, it's going to be a busy run-in, but he takes it all in his stride and is relishing the prospect.
"At the moment I'm enjoying being involved in the Pro12 and when the time comes to focus on the B&I Cup final I will do that as well.
"We are lucky in that the bunch of lads we have in the 'A' team, were there for most of last year as well, so there is a huge bond among us. We want to defend our title.
"We thoroughly enjoyed the win last year and it gave everyone a huge lift. You also see how Jordi and Marty have flourished since that win and we look up to them and what they have achieved."