Thursday 22 August 2019

'Losing like that in Bath was a key moment for us'

The Big Interview: Jack McGrath

Jack McGrath during training this week ahead of their Champions Cup clash against Northampton tomorrow
Jack McGrath during training this week ahead of their Champions Cup clash against Northampton tomorrow

Marcus Ó Buachalla

It's November 2015 and Leinster have just left the Rec with a losing bonus point in the Champions Cup. Two games in and only one point to show.

This isn't Leinster. This wasn't in the script. And the last wicked sub-plot sees the Bath scrum getting the better of the Leinster pack.

When you're down, the only way is up. And they were down. Rock bottom. Prop Jack McGrath reflects on the game and the days that followed.

"It was a tough slog," he recalls. "The game itself and then just everything that went with it, because I think we did a lot right that day - we only lost by three points remember - but it just didn't click for us as a pack and we came out second best, there's no doubt about it.

"But we had two options as to how we could react. . ."


John Fogarty
John Fogarty

Twelve months on and it would appear that they chose the right option. Under scrum coach John Fogarty the Leinster pack are now motoring.

"We learned a lot that day against Bath," explains McGrath. "We really had to look at ourselves pretty hard. We were critical and that's not easy. Nobody likes the truth at moments like that but you have to realise why it is the way it is.

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"We were laying it all out there so that we could get better so that we could make sure, as much as we could, that a day like that wouldn't happen again. It was a key moment for us as a group and we all took something from that process."

Without giving away the trade secrets, what did McGrath himself take away?

Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath embrace as they are substituted during Leinster’s victory over Castres in October. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath embrace as they are substituted during Leinster’s victory over Castres in October. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"You will have hard days in the scrum, but were we best placed to deal with what came at us? I don't think we were," he says.

"We had come off a World Cup and I think we thought we could just turn up and it would happen. It doesn't.

"A whole lot of work goes in during the week and making sure that the scrum, the lineout, everything is as good as it can be and being honest, we didn't do that.

"You have to give credit to Bath as well. They did a job on us, but for us we wanted a dominant scrum and there were so many things in the build-up that we could all say after, 'actually yeah that was a bit off' or 'yeah I didn't go about that the right way'.

"The whole experience definitely brought us together as well as a unit and we just put our minds to it that if a day like that was to happen again, the other scrum would have to work very hard for it. We wouldn't be found wanting from our side."

So how does that translate on match week now?

"We all show up ready to go. We try to train as we'll play; as a front row we are coming up against international props and hookers every day. We are constantly pushing each other," says the Ireland loosehead.

"Then look at the lads below that. Peter Dooley, Andrew Porter, Oisín Heffernan, Jeremy Loughman to name just a few. All really good players with Ireland U-20s experience and now with Guinness Pro12 experience and for Dooley with Champions Cup experience now as well. That's a really competitive place to be.

"If you don't turn up, you can be sure one of the other lads will."

The hope is that the weekday sessions turn into a weekend performance and for 27-year-old McGrath, a dominant scrum is certainly what showed up to Franklin's Gardens last weekend.

But again, the lessons linger. December 2013.

"We went well (in Northampton last Friday) but were we happy with everything? No. We still feel we have things that could have gone better.

"And then Northampton will have a few lads back in the mix this weekend in Kieran Brookes, Calum Clark and Teimana Harrison.

"Their dynamic will change, the ref will change, the conditions. They'll want to front up and address some things that they will feel didn't go their way. And they managed to do just that in 2013 when they turned us over.

"So unfortunately you can't take that much from the game."

With 36 caps to his name, the St Mary's prop is a main stay of the Ireland squad now.

He's had a busy year in green, with wins over South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, but as he looks back on the past 12 months he is at a loss to pick out a highlight.

"I'm playing the game I love with the two teams that I grew up supporting as a kid. Like with Leinster last season for a young side relatively speaking, we reached a Pro12 final," he says.

"Obviously disappointing that we couldn't get over the line against Connacht but that was a massive moment too. Learnings. Then with Ireland and South Africa, the All Blacks in Chicago and Australia too.

"Look, it's just a pleasure to be playing rugby at a club I love and with lads I've grown up with.

"I won't look too far ahead into next year or the run-in to this season. You have to live in the here and now, and playing in front of a massive home crowd in the Aviva against Northampton is enough for me."

That home factor is something that has been mentioned quite a bit lately but McGrath sees the opportunity to run out at the Aviva as being as much about thanking the away support as performing for those in the stands.

"Last week in Northampton was something else. I'm not sure if it came across on the TV, but Molly Malone was belting out across the stadium at one stage. You try to stay in the moment but things like that do grab your attention briefly.


"That energy that they give us every day but especially in a place like that is brilliant. We are always so thankful for their efforts because it does make a massive difference.

"How much they care for this team and for us is quite humbling and we would never take it for granted. Instead we will use it to motivate us and to hopefully put on a performance for them.

"So yeah, Saturday evening we'll go back to square one again and build and look to put what we learned from last week into practice.

Hopefully that will be enough to get us over the line."

Every day a school day. Not everyone gets to learn in front of 40,000, though.

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