Monday 23 September 2019

Lifting the trophy is something I'll never forget

Player Diary: Luke McGrath

Luke McGrath going through his paces. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke McGrath going through his paces. Photo: Sportsfile

The biggest week Leinster have had since winning the Heineken Cup trophy in 2012 and here it was. A week to enjoy. Personally, I had been trying my hardest to get back fit after an ankle injury. Thankfully, I was fully fit for the big week ahead. I have to give (rehab coach) Diarmaid Brennan a special mention for helping me every day. I would not have been fit if it was not for his hard work and positivity throughout my rehab schedule.

We often talk about a next-game focus and working on the basics, and getting these right. So you won't be too surprised to hear that the build-up to the biggest game of the last six years was the same as all the rest! But this routine gives a huge sense of reassurance.

Luke McGrath celebrating with Jack McGrath and the European Champions Cup trophy. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke McGrath celebrating with Jack McGrath and the European Champions Cup trophy. Photo: Sportsfile

Monday was all about the opposition. Racing 92 have tremendous depth and experience in their squad so we knew a big challenge lay ahead of us. We focused a lot on their defensive system but by Tuesday, we focused on our own defensive system intently. We knew threats such as Teddy Thomas, Leone Nakawara, Camille Chat and Yannick Nyanga were coming our way, therefore our defence had to be perfect. This was also the big training day of the week and the most vital. It went very well.

By Wednesday we were ready for some time away and a day off but we also use this day for the kickers. Jamison Gibson-Park, Nick McCarthy and myself were down in the RDS working hard with kicking coach Emmet Farrell on the type of box-kicks we were going to implement in our plan. The rest of the day was about recovery.

Thursday was the one deviation. We would normally only travel the day before our away games but because of the early time for the Captain's Run and the new settings of Bilbao, management decided we would go on Thursday evening. Otherwise training went well. The session in the morning was all about ourselves and a huge focus on our strategy.

It was clear on the Friday that the decision to fly early was a great idea. There was just no stress on the morning and everyone calm.

Teddy Thomas. Photo: Sportsfile
Teddy Thomas. Photo: Sportsfile

Our Captain's Run was at midday in the San Mamés Stadium. It is possibly the nicest stadium I had ever been in. The changing rooms, the pitch, the seating was all of the highest quality. We finished with Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton speaking about enjoying the occasion. Not going into your shell, and going to "win" the final. These words were very valuable to hear, coming from two lads who have both won three titles.

Saturday was a morning of nerves. The nerves were made easier though rooming with Dan Leavy. We just focused on speaking about anything else until after the pre-match meal.

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As we arrived to the stadium, we were met by a sea of blue. Leinster blue. We were blown away by the amount of travelling support and it gave us a huge lift pre-match. But as Wayne Barnes blew the first whistle, all the nerves went. It was time to do what we'd been working so hard for.

It was not our best performance by any means but to win a tight game like that made it all that more exciting. The feeling of lifting that trophy is something I will never forget. All the disappointment of losing in the semi-final last year disappeared. The hard work we had put in since that day had paid off.

I was in Edinburgh in 2009 when Leinster lifted the Heineken Cup for the first time. I was 16 and to look back then and to think I would be involved in a cup-winning team I wouldn't have believed it. We arrived back to the InterContinental Hotel on the Saturday night and then on to Energia Park on Sunday afternoon for a homecoming. It was a great chance to thank our fans for their unbelievable support during the whole campaign. The numbers were in the thousands which speaks volumes for this great club.

The games definitely don't get any easier. The semi-final of the Guinness PRO14 is this weekend and what an exciting challenge - Munster in the RDS. It is vital we leave the celebrations for now and put all our focus into this game. We want to go further in this competition than last year but it won't be easy. But, I know we are very much looking forward to the challenge.

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