Saturday 24 March 2018

McGrath primed to make a break for Ireland glory

Leinster's Luke McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's Luke McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

No point in getting a break if you don't make one yourself.

Now 24, nobody is able to help Luke McGrath now more than Luke McGrath. And how. Sport stats rarely tell the entire story but they can illustrate it.

Of all the players who have made line-breaks in the Guinness PRO12 this term, there are quite a few who have done so more times than the Leinster man and indeed one of their significant number - 19 in all - is a team-mate, Rory O'Loughlin.

In the general scheme of things, being 20th in a list of line-breakers shouldn't seem like much of a big deal but if you take a second look, his status is worthy of a little more credit.

That's because of the 19 players ahead of him - led by Ulster's irrepressible Charles Piutau, who also tops polls of defenders beaten and offloads, as well as being second in carries and third in metres made - all are outside backs.

McGrath is the only non-three-quarter in the list; he is also just two behind the leading try-scorer this season, Munster wing Ronan O'Mahony, with seven (he has also scored twice more in Europe).

It is fair to say this scrum-half, whose primary roles are nominally to harry his grunting pack and proffer silver-salver service to his gilded backs, has been literally taking matters into his own hands.

The line-breaks have dove-tailed with seminal breakthroughs; now undeniably Leinster's first-choice nine, he followed a November debut with Ireland with a significant Six Nations bow as a nerveless replacement against England in the spring.

Winning silverware is the immediate priority but, with a summer tour to lesser spotted destinations in the offing, a challenge to become the pre-eminent back-up to Conor Murray also heaves into view.

"It's been an incredible season so far," says the player whose growing influence received the ultimate in-house accolade, when his colleagues anointed the occasional team captain as their player of the season at their awards bash last weekend.

"But there's still a lot to play for. There's been a lot of learning through the year as well, but I've enjoyed absolutely every minute.

"I've got a lot more game-time this year than I did last year, and I think that's the main difference, why I'm enjoying it so much.

"It's a really exciting few weeks for the club here as well being in the semi-finals already. There are big games to come and it's incredibly exciting."

He has been exciting, too; where once Matt O'Connor deployed him merely as a square-on, physical presence - and all too rarely at that - Stuart Lancaster's influence has removed his shackles and unfurled a whirling whizz of pace and power.

This season has been his most productive yet with 19 starts from 24 games and a career-high nine tries to boot; the Champions Cup defeat in Clermont demonstrated he will still engage physically but the general tone of the campaign, aided by increased certainty in his passing skills, has been the freedom to run like the wind.

"We're trying to be more of a running kind of team, so whether that's the nine running a bit more or taking on the line as a threat, that's what we're trying to build in.

"It's different to last season. There's definitely more running in the training, I think training is shorter, but it's just non-stop running, way more intense. I'd hear about it if I wasn't running enough in games…"

He is duly sprinting into prime position now to challenge Kieran Marmion on the summer tour; the scrum-half pecking order will be instructive.

"It's going to be a massive opportunity for a lot of younger guys to be involved. If I was lucky to be there, it's almost like starting a small season again.

"You're going into a different environment and one I have been in a bit this year, so I suppose you've got to take it one game at a time.

Massive "It's my first tour away with the Irish senior squad so I'd be very excited for it, absolutely.

"With Conor away, it is a big opportunity for the scrum-halves who go because Conor's been number one for the last good while.

"It would be a massive opportunity for more game time at that level. There is obviously still a bit of a gap because I haven't had as much experience of that level that much.

"There was 15 minutes against Canada and then the same against England so that was pretty much it. So it is definitely a massive bump up to that level.

"The one big learning I took from it all was that the smallest details have the biggest consequences in games.

"Even to be involved in my first Six Nations game, it was great to finish on that kind of high with Ireland.

"It is getting up to that level but that can only happen with games and hopefully I can get more of them in the near future."

His biggest break may be yet to come.

Irish Independent

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