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Exam time for McLaughlin

EXAMINATIONS on the field. Examinations off the field. Kevin McLaughlin could be forgiven for seeing life as one big constant relentless test; with the pitch his exam hall where he and his team-mates face a rigorous challenge each and every weekend.

So to put his busy day-to-day professional life to one side, the Ireland international back-rower has his Christmas examinations to contend with. It's the mantra of having an active body and an active mind which suits him, even if the pressures can become consuming at times.

Not that you'll hear the 28-year-old complain. Both professionally and personally, he sets the bar high and asks many questions of himself. And when the opportunity comes to improve, he strives to never compromise his ambition.

"Yeah it's a pretty busy month in store," the Dubliner reflected with a smile as he looked ahead to the visit of Italian side Zebre to the RDS tomorrow night. "Big games coming up thick and fast and then there's a paper that I'm studying for which is taking up a fair bit of any free time I have.

"We have a lot of respect for Zebre because we saw how good they were against Ulster a few weeks back in what was a game they should have won. Italian rugby is growing every season and their national team impressed with their comeback against Australia last weekend. Again, with a bit of luck, they might have snatched victory there.

"So we'll be looking to build this week, mindful that we are facing a side that are going to come over here with a fair bit of confidence despite their league position."

McLaughlin made his seventh appearance of the season in the 6-0 victory over the Glasgow Warriors in tough conditions at Scotstoun last weekend.

It was, he says, an important victory, both in terms of the confidence garnered as well as the vital four points gained in what is fast becoming one of the most competitive top-four races in recent years.

"Coming into that win, Glasgow had a fair distance in front of us and we talked about the importance of keeping ourselves in the hunt, especially given the disappointment of losing to Ospreys before the November break.

"So to grind out a win in wet and very cold conditions, with the ball akin to a bar of soap, was satisfying and really important because this was a game that we might have lost in the past.

"Looking around the dressing-room after the game you could see the effort that the lads had all put in. And while it mightn't have been the most glamorous-looking game, the younger guys -- especially those who came into the front row -- deserve a lot of credit. It was a real 'old school' game, with chances at a premium, so it gave us great encouragement."

As November departs and December rolls along, attentions shift to dual pursuits both at home and abroad. The excitement for games at this time of year, McLaughlin maintains, means that high standards are set both in terms of the squad's preparations and in their match-day endeavours.

Having been selected for the recent November series, McLaughlin knows that last weekend's Ireland result can have a positive effect on the province.

"To be honest, looking at the manner in which Ireland defeated Argentina, it would be impossible not to take confidence from beating a side of that quality. From my own point of view, I would have loved to have been selected for the games but it wasn't to be this time and it was great to get a game under my belt. After a few weeks' break, you feel all the better for getting game time."

And to December itself? It is a month, the wing forward insists, for producing quality end results.

"December is always a difficult month for a rugby player because you have a lot of things to balance right. First and foremost, though, the priority is with rugby and to get the required rest in so we're fresh and right for action.

"This month will be that bit more of a challenge because I've an exam in financial risk management through the Institute of Bankers in Ireland and UCD. It might not seem to be the most exciting of subjects, but with the Budget coming up there is a bit more of a crossover so it's quite relevant.

"I wouldn't say that I'm obsessed with the markets, but I do have an interest in how things are going, especially in the European Union and in America, especially after the election. Obviously the Budget is going to be a tough one for a lot of people here.

"There are the day-to-day chores like Christmas shopping and trying to catch up with friends and family as well to factor in, but I'd be fairly well-organised and a bit of a list-maker, so I just have to make sure that I get a few things ticked off in that regard!

"With the international players returning this week, it has given us a timely injection because we were pretty depleted in the opening months. It almost feels like a fresh start for us. We're in a decent position in both competitions but we really need to push on. That challenge starts now."