'All roads lead to Galway' - Jack McGrath shelving Lions dream ahead of Connacht clash
The dust has barely settled on what was an often trying Six Nations campaign, but Jack McGrath's sole focus now is Leinster’s pivotal clash with Connacht at the Sportsground this evening.
Over the course of the last three years both Matt O’Connor and current Leinster boss Leo Cullen have been forced to adapt to prolonged spells without a plethora of their marquee players, as the eastern province continues to account for a significant portion of the Ireland squad.
Of course, it’s a clear signal that the structures in place in south Dublin are working amply, though it also means that the player resources available to Cullen and co were hugely abbreviated not only during the recent Championship but last year’s World Cup.
It’s a credit to the burgeoning coaching ticket that Leinster, with a victory over high flying Connacht later today, will go top of the Pro 12. This point is obviously not lost on Cullen, who has selected a formidable 23 for the task at hand.
The group is laden with returning internationals, including Jack McGrath, who takes his place on a bench that features Sean Cronin, Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner and Mike Ross.
Even as Ireland deteriorated almost beyond recognition when losing to France and England, McGrath, along with Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and CJ Stander, rarely wavered in performing optimally over the course of the tournament.
It may have been his third Championship - having picked up winners’ medals in the first two - but this year felt like a breakout for the St Mary’s club man and, as such, he’s featured in nearly all hypothetical British and Irish Lions test sides for next year’s visit to New Zealand.
McGrath started the first four games of the 2015 title retention, but was dropped for Cian Healy for the Championship decider away to Scotland, which took its toll.
The loose head remains coy on those heady notions of taking on the All Blacks in an unfamiliar red, particularly with Pat Lam’s frontrunners to be navigated in the here and now. And, of course, a three test tour of South Africa in June is also on the horizon.
“Coming into the campaign, I was obviously happy we won the competition last year but not starting the last game was a bit disappointing. I had an aim coming into this competition to try and start the five games.
“For me, I just do what I can do to be the best for the team, and if you get singled out for praise it’s all very well and good.
“But it is the team that does it. We lost some games so it’s pretty disappointing. It’s nice to get some praise but, again, you want the team to be successful.
“It’s obviously something every young rugby player dreams of (Lions), after playing for Ireland, so it’s, I don’t know, you can’t read into too much. Next summer is a long way away, and all roads lead to Galway this weekend.”
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It’s not been a stellar time for Irish rugby by any stretch of the imagination. Once again, Ireland failed to make a World Cup semi final, and then Ulster, Munster and Leinster all exited the Champions Cup at the group stage.
Over the last two months Joe Schmidt’s coaching credentials have come under more scrutiny than ever before, while the Irish squad often gave the impression of an entity bereft of confidence.
However, convincing wins over Italy and Scotland offered a glimmer of hope, and McGrath says that morale was maintained through a strong squad dynamic, though recent shortcomings were unquestionably wounding.
“There’s probably no point in saying it out in the open, we know ourselves. We’re old and we’re bold enough and experienced enough to know that we are all disappointed. And, if you’re not disappointed, there’s something wrong. You have to channel that disappointment towards your next game because there’s no point in dwelling on something.
“It’s one of those things that, when we were under pressure from the first three games, the only thing that mattered was us as a group. For us, we just needed to close ranks. We knew we hadn’t become a bad team overnight; it was just that a couple of things hadn’t gone our way.
“We know we maybe had a bit of luck on our side over the last two seasons and it was probably just a mixture of few things, and it was a bit of a learning curve for us this year. To finish third is massive for us; it was a carrot that was put to us after the England game.
“The way we started the Championship and the way we ended it is polar opposites. So we’ve taken a lot of positives from that.”
The 26-year-old is evidently buoyed by the concentrated period of test rugby to come, that just might culminate with him donning that famous Lions’ jersey.
Ireland will bid to finally taste victory on South African soil before an autumn series that entails two encounters with the world champions and another against Australia.
“It’s really exciting. Where we want to be is up at the top with the best teams in the world and I think the way the fixtures have fallen that’s the way it’s going to be. It’s a really exciting time to be involved and I’m really looking forward to it.
“There’s great young guys coming through as well, and it’ll be great to see some of them go on tour and express themselves. All I can say is that it will be really interesting and exciting over the next 10 months.”