Friday 13 December 2019

'Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss were around and I was kind of an extra for a lot of years'

Luke McGrath's leadership qualities have always set him apart from his peers

Luke McGrath: ‘All the lads are young and eager to play. It’s a really enjoyable place to play.’ Photo: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
Luke McGrath: ‘All the lads are young and eager to play. It’s a really enjoyable place to play.’ Photo: Oisin Keniry/INPHO
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Despite their near constant involvement in any given game, scrumhalves don't actually come across their opposite numbers as often as they'd like.

Props cosy up to each other at every scrum, and even at lineouts they can swap notes. Second-rows much the same. Back-rowers are constantly squaring up to each other, while behind the scrum anyone with a number 10 or higher on their back can go toe to toe in a clear-cut contest with their counterpart across the gain line. 

Scrumhalves, however, mostly have to make do with getting on with their own job as well as possible, and hopefully better than their opposite number. So when the opportunity arises for some direct interaction between these busiest of players then it's a moment you want to get right.

When Leinster played Connacht in the Sportsground last season one such moment arose. It helped that the men in question were, and are, fighting over the leftovers on Conor Murray's plate. So one second Kieran Marmion is taking an inside pass from Eoin Griffin, 10 metres from the Leinster line and with the try-scoring picture already forming in his head, the next he's cut down from behind by Luke McGrath with a perfect mix of accuracy and force. On any level it was a special moment, but on personal level it must have felt like a kill in the wild.

"No, no, nothing like that!" he claims. "He's so quick and I saw him 10 metres ahead of me and I was kinda jogging and I saw Tiernan (O'Halloran) had got a lovely offload. I just got on my bike and thankfully I made the tackle. It was nice to make a try-saving tackle like that but unfortunately they got us on the next phase and ended up scoring on the other side."

Still, the fact that it was Marmion?

"You're so tired you can't even think that way," he says, unconvincingly. "I'm telling the truth here! Just one of those things, I suppose. I probably should have been closer to him. I was kind of knocking off for the first few steps and then I saw him a good bit ahead of me. I had to get on my bike."

There is not another player in the country you would want saddling up in exactly that situation. Is Luke McGrath the quickest over 25 metres? Hardly. And clearly he is neither the biggest nor the strongest. What is unquestionable however is the mentality at play here: McGrath doesn't count the hours in the day spent making himself the best player he can be. So in pressure situations he doesn't lose time trying to compute the odds on how it will look and whether or not it will hurt.

This was exactly the word on him when he was in St Michael's. That school has cornered the market on its efficiency in feeding players into the professional game, and McGrath is one of the standard-bearers. Anything we were told about him at the time was positive. And it was mostly about his laser-like focus on success. Mental strength goes a long way in sport, even more so in a gladiatorial environment such as this. So McGrath is a valuable man to have around.

This manifests itself in a couple of ways. On the training field at Leinster, for example, it would be easy enough to drift onto the margins given the number of personalities who need extra baggage space for their international caps. McGrath can fit his four into a casual jacket. Johnny Sexton on the other hand would need a wagon hitched to his high-powered vehicle. On the field though the scrumhalf plays like he belongs with his celebrated partner. It's a good example to other young fellas coming behind him.

So is this the life he thought it would be when he was soldiering through school with one eye on a career as a pro?

"I just loved it (from the start)," he says. "There was probably a couple of years I was an extra. Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss were around and I was kind of an extra for a lot of years. They were probably a massive learning curve for me and just incredibly intense. But they retired and there was more opportunities for the young scrumhalves. The average age of the scrumhalves went down significantly after those two left. No, it was great learning off them and I really feel I excelled from the things they taught me. I'm really enjoying my rugby at the moment."

And was he a model of patience while he took his place in the queue?

"I'd like to think I am. But my patience nearly . . . just being 24th man constantly - at that stage you want to play. It was kind of tough always travelling and not playing but thankfully there's been a lot of opportunities the last while and it's a really competitive squad we have at the moment. All the lads are young and eager to play. It's a really enjoyable place to play."

The other way McGrath gets to demonstrate his value is when the whistle goes. For Leinster, that's straightforward enough because he starts ahead of Jamison Gibson-Park in the big games. This is testament to McGrath's leadership qualities as technically the Kiwi is a more polished operator.

When it comes to the national side the door is harder to open. Ireland fans will remember well his contribution when he came on for Marmion against England in the Six Nations last season. He had barely settled down when in the 79th minute, with Ireland leading 13-9, McGrath picked the ball up at the back of a ruck outside the England 22 and dinked it into the corner putting the away side under the cosh. It was greeted with a huge roar from the crowd.

In truth, he was blessed it worked out. And when Joe Schmidt referred to it afterwards you immediately thought the coach felt the same way.

"Looking back at that to be honest, it's one of those things that you're thinking, 'How - why did I do that?' Obviously it worked out and I'm delighted. It's something I definitely practise in training. But just to have the confidence to go for it. If that doesn't go well, I'm in serious trouble really because they're on the counter-attack but I saw the space and I knew they'd have a lot of men in the line because they were chasing the game. I think Johnny ended up going to the line as well. If the kick wasn't perfect I would have got it off him and the coaching staff.

"He (Schmidt) said it me as well, that it was brilliant that it came off but it could have gone a different way, you know the bounce of a ball can go anywhere. Thankfully, it came off."

This afternoon McGrath will be an important cog in the wheel expected to run rings around Glasgow, who are winless in this campaign. The bookies have Leinster at -20 points on the handicap. It's an interesting selection from Dave Rennie who will have 19- and 21-year-old flankers in a pack where captain Rob Harley has more appearances for the club than the other seven forwards combined. And, perhaps uniquely - and hardly by design - no fewer than five players in the match-day 23 are scrumhalves by trade.

Given the heat generated between these teams over the last few seasons, it's unlikely Leinster will be slow about coming forward.

"I dunno, I think it's just playing each other," McGrath says of the friction that never seems far below the surface in this fixture. "They've obviously, in the last kind of five years, been a very competitive team in the Pro14. We seem to have constantly played them. I dunno what it is, obviously Munster and Glasgow have their own thing but now Leinster and Glasgow.

"We've have competitive matches and we did brilliantly to win in Scotstoun (in October) but when we went up there two weeks after that we got beaten well enough. And they did enjoy that, 100 per cent! We didn't enjoy it much. They're an incredibly talented group and they're playing some really good rugby this year which is great to watch.

"Even we were saying they haven't won this year in Europe but you look at their Pro14 games and they've only lost one, narrowly to Edinburgh, so they're on really good form. It wasn't long ago where we'd lost all our games in Europe and we played Bath and ended up having a great performance. So they've nothing to lose and they'll definitely come and play."

Hopefully they will, but Leinster's target will be the bonus point as soon as possible. In which case they can get a few front-liners off the field given the six-day turnaround before playing Montpellier next Saturday. So far it's all going to plan for them in pursuit of that home quarter-final.

You could say the same for their single-minded scrumhalf.

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