McGrath ready for ultimate test against Springbok scrum
Loosehead prop a key player for Joe Schmidt, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
Before he departed Dublin for Ireland's three-week trip around South Africa, Jack McGrath dug out and old photo to have a look.
Nine years ago, he was part of a Leinster Schools U-18s tour of Durban and Cape Town and as he looked at the young faces he noted how many of his old team-mates are no longer in the game.
Ireland's starting loosehead isn't the only professional in the picture, but he is the most decorated.
Marty Moore also made the trip, while Connacht's John Cooney, Dave McSharry and Ben Marshall were on board as well as Leinster's Dominic Ryan and Noel Reid, and Darren Hudson, Michael Keating and Jack O'Connell, who are in England, and Tom Sexton, who is in Australia with the Western Force.
It is a happy memory for McGrath: they won all of their games on that tour and this is his first time back.
"I really enjoyed it the last time, we played different kind of provincial and development teams and it was a great experience," he recalls.
"I looked at a picture before we left of the guys that were on the tour and it's just funny how many guys came through and are still playing, still playing club rugby or who aren't playing anymore.
"Probably 60pc of the guys aren't around anymore and they were the best of the best of the schools game.
"Professional rugby isn't suited for everyone but the guys that aren't playing are enjoying themselves and that was a great trip."
The return is all business for the St Mary's man, whose importance to the Ireland team continues to grow each time he takes the field.
Throughout a difficult Six Nations, McGrath was solid as a rock and while Joe Schmidt would prefer to have both him and Cian Healy on board, there is no question that Healy's absence is lessened significantly by his rival's consistency.
On Saturday, he is likely to link up with Rory Best and Mike Ross in a well-established front-row, and their ability to compete with the expected Springbok trio of Tendai 'Beast' Mtawarira, Adriaan Strauss and Frans Malherbe will be crucial.
"Absolutely. In South Africa, in Cape Town, it is," McGrath replies when asked if this is the ultimate challenge for a front-row.
"We're excited but there's a bit of nervousness there. It's going to be incredible, like nothing any of us have experienced and we're all raring to go.
"It's different gravy playing them in their home spot so for us as a pack we really have to step up because they take pride in their forward battles, especially their scrum.
"We have to be really clued in; if we give them an inch they're going to take a mile and that's what gets their crowd into the game. If they're dominating their scrum it starts from there so we need to be aware of that."
Although Ireland are missing some of their most experienced players this weekend, McGrath believes they can cope.
"It's not as if we're being thrown into the deep end," he says. "There's still experienced guys here and we may have lost some but we've gained guys who are coming in and have won trophies and are flying high.
"You want to be putting your best players on the pitch and guys who are really confident at the moment. It's going to be great to have them."