Kildare man looks back after joining province's 100 club
Late starter recalls switch from prop to hooker after reaching milestone appearance for Leinster, writes Marcus Ó Buachalla
The path to your 100th cap can be a long and winding road and for Leinster hooker James Tracy that is certainly the case. From his debut off the bench in November 2012 to the century milestone at the weekend against Lyon, it's been the road less travelled for the Kill native.
"I wasn't always a hooker. It was a chat in my last year in the Academy that eventually brought about the final switch from loosehead prop to hooker but even before that I had been chopping and changing all the way through," he said.
He started off in the backs. He used to work on his speed and agility with the dad of former Leinster team-mate Sam Coughlan-Murray, Brian, while with Naas RFC and all the way through school at Newbridge College. While there, it was Pat O'Brien who saw something in him more suited to the forwards, before Derek Sherlock saw even more in him and moved him to the front-row.
"All along the way there have been different people who have helped me. I had a great foundation in Naas Rugby Club and then in Newbridge. So many people to mention and to credit for their help over the years. And then it all came to a head when Joe called me into his office."
This 'Joe' is, of course, Joe Schmidt who in his last year with Leinster summoned the young prop for a chat.
"I was in my final year in the Academy and I hadn't made my debut yet so I suppose you are feeling the pressure a little bit and wondering what might come next. Joe called me into his office and I had had a good pre-season and I was feeling good about my game but he said 'do you want to play internationally'? I said 'of course I do'. And then he said 'well your frame isn't suited to playing as an international loosehead prop.'
"So straight away I was presented with a choice. Stick to loosehead or make the switch to hooker. It was a no-brainer and that same day I started throwing the ball and started to work on my technique."
To be now at 100 caps as a Leinster hooker - not to mention a senior Irish international - is all the more impressive given he took it up so late.
"Honestly I never thought I would get one cap from where I was. Even when I got that one cap, there was quite a few years when I was wandering a bit. In the wilderness. The caps weren't exactly flowing but I got great exposure with UCD and bit by bit it all started to come together.
"By the end I could see the ball kicked into touch and there was no sense of dread about the pressure that was about to come my way with a throw. So it took time but I am just incredibly proud to have achieved the 100 at the weekend. It was a class experience and the week and the build-up and the game itself couldn't have gone much better."
Before we move on from all things debuts, was there any interesting chat with Schmidt when he handed him his Irish jersey in November 2016 given the prophetic chat he had with him way back in 2012?
"No, to be fair, in a match week like that as we built towards Canada all the focus is on that week so there was no need to look back to then and our chat that day but knowing Joe, I'm sure he remembers the chat back in his office in Leinster. There are never any guarantees so it is mad the way it has played out and that it was Joe that handed me my first Leinster and Ireland jersey."
With the ton put to bed it is time to focus on cap 101 tomorrow against the Glasgow Warriors. His personal excitement has been replaced by a collective excitement for the task at hand.
"I think we are all pretty excited to get going again. The first block of games without the lads that were away with Ireland went pretty well with us winning six from six but now we are into a period where we need to kick on again.
"As a group we all realise that and we all know that the chances to own the jersey and to make an impact are coming thick and fast. We all know how tough it has been playing the Warriors the last few years especially over there and we are just keen to get going again."
It hasn't been plain sailing at home either with Dave Rennie's side recording a 24-39 win at the RDS last season. The only side to do so all year. Of course, the nuances of the relatively new Guinness PRO14 conference system means that Leinster haven't played the Warriors in Scotstoun in two years and it was a chastening experience. A 31-21 loss with the home side running in tries from everywhere and from all angles. It was 33-25 the year before that.
But Tracy doesn't need a history lesson to hammer home the magnitude of the task facing them this weekend. But also the opportunity that's there now that the Scottish side are in their conference.
"They are a hugely physical team and they use that brutality around the park to their advantage and then release some lethal backs to finish the job. If you get sucked into their game it can make for a very long afternoon but we have prepared well this week and it's up to us the 23 selected to keep the momentum going.
"And because they are in our conference there is that added element of knowing that if we win we can keep that gap between us and them which could prove crucial come the end of the season."
It is odd to be talking about the end of the season and while the European back-to-back games against Northampton and the inter-pro derbies that follow are not lost on the 28-year-old either, he knows that to get drawn into a longer-term view won't get them too far.
"We know the importance of this block. The first Aviva game is only around the corner, then the Christmas inter-pros but you just look at how Glasgow went against Exeter last weekend and some of the scores they got to know that this game is going to be tough. If we start to drift and start to think of other things we won't go too well over there on Saturday."
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