Saturday 24 March 2018

Player Diary: Aviva moments drive us to bigger days ahead

England and Wasps games great wins to reflect on as we enter a crucial phase of season

Luke McGrath turns on the style during training. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Luke McGrath turns on the style during training. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Luke McGrath

Connacht week and it's time to get back into it for me. I wasn't involved for the game against the Ospreys last weekend so it's good to get back at it. The few days off were good though and a welcome opportunity to recharge the batteries ahead of the run-in.

I went over to London to visit an old friend Conor Gilsenan, who came through the Leinster Academy but is now playing with London Irish. Great to see him doing so well over there and I wish him all the best in the play-offs.

This is my first season writing these diaries in the Irish Independent but what I have enjoyed hugely about them is the opportunity it gives you to look back on moments in a season. Because so often the focus is on the next game and you really don't have time to sit back and take in just what has gone before. Thankfully, looking back over the last few weeks for myself, there have been a lot of really good moments. And two in the Aviva.

Making my Six Nations debut was actually one of the more peculiar weeks in my rugby career. I had seen that Conor had taken a knock the week before so I knew there could be a possibility of being involved against England but you never know and it's an odd limbo to be in.

The Thursday morning before the game was when I found out. Joe pulled me aside and told me that I was going to be on the bench. I was unbelievably excited to get an opportunity, nervous also, but more excitement. The possibility of making my Six Nations debut against England was hard to believe.

The couple of days prior to the game, I made sure I did everything I could on and off the pitch to get the result. As a team, we spoke that there was no silverware on the line; however, a lot was at stake in the game. An opportunity to solidify second place in the tournament, and ranking points, not to mention England had everything to play for. A massive challenge lay ahead.

Johnny Sexton. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Johnny Sexton. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Getting on for the last 15 minutes was incredible. The atmosphere was like nothing I had ever experienced before. There was a moment where the crowd began singing the 'Fields of Athenry' with only a minute or two left in the game. I actually couldn't hear Johnny shouting the call to me from 10 metres away. It just shows how loud it was. To beat England in the Aviva, on your Six Nations debut, definitely goes down as a day to remember.

Wasps and everything around the game was another huge moment personally but also or us as a Leinster squad and for good reason.

As you might expect, the week began with a lot of talk in the media about last year's quarter-finals and Leinster not being involved. Wasps played a massive part in that with convincing home and away wins. As you can imagine, training was therefore up a few notches.

We spoke briefly about what happened in the Wasps games last year; however, we also acknowledged that we were a different team. Wasps have an incredible squad with many internationals so we were aware of what lay ahead but were confident in our own abilities. We spent most of the week focusing on holding onto the ball for longer periods of time and not giving up cheap possession. These were facets of our game that we were poor at the week previous against Cardiff. They were lethal on the turnover attack and Wasps would be no different.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Photo: SPORTSFILE

As for the day itself? The bus journey from UCD to the Aviva is always special. The streets are lined with Leinster flags on poles, cars, buildings etc. It reminds you of the amount of support we have behind us. Always a trip I really enjoy and that was before we got to the ground and ran out in front of 50,000-plus. Seeing that, we were even more determined to perform. It was my first time being involved in a European quarter-final so that made it extra special.

We could then put our feet up and Sunday was spent watching the Clermont v Toulon match. So Clermont in Lyon and a place in a Champions Cup final at stake.

But we've the small matter of a trip out west first. It's a massive test for us against Connacht and it's one that we're really looking forward to. A must-win for both teams. It's what everyone wants to be involved in.

Irish Independent

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