Thursday 26 April 2018

McLaughlin banks on upturn after tough adjustment

David Kelly

David Kelly

When every single bank in the western world was looking for a bail-out last year, Ireland's 1024th and newest international cap, blind-side flanker Kevin McLaughlin, was the only person in the western world desperately seeking a bank to bail him out.

That the bank was Anglo-Irish showed how desperate he had become.

With Rocky Elsom destroying European packs like some out-sized cartoon hero, one injury too many had forced the choir-singing, Gonzaga alumnus to consider his very future in the game.

At just 24, and with a mere five starts in three seasons, injuries had seemingly scuppered his dream to become a professional rugby player. In his first season in the Leinster Academy he tore his cruciate ligament and was out for six months. Then shoulder reconstruction. Then his A/C joint in the shoulder.

Leinster coach Michael Cheika put it to him as only the straight-talking Aussie can. Sneeze and you're history. The injuries stopped. Unfortunately for him, Rocky didn't. "Last season was a tough one for me," confides a player who has taken longer than others -- 25 years -- to come of age. "With Rocky there, I was not getting any game time. I definitely had to assess where I was at with rugby, but I wasn't helped by constant injuries.

"I suppose it makes me really appreciate this season all the more, in that I had couple of years of struggling to make a breakthrough and struggling to play consistently for my province. Now I've come through, I'm playing and I'm delighted to get some rewards. I'm going to enjoy every minute of it."

Singing bass with the RTE Philharmonic Choir under the leadership of Gerry Murphy, the Gonzaga teacher who first instilled in him a love for music, helped to clear his head as he pondered a possible future without sport.

He was doing commerce in UCD, a day here with, a day there doing work experience with Anglo-Irish Bank. But he knew he had to commit one way or the other.

It was a tough call, one which, at about the same time, Ireland's and Leinster's other new (but also old-ish) kid on the block, Jonny Sexton, was himself contemplating, even though the out-half just wanted to play elsewhere. McLaughlin didn't even see that as an option.

"Last season I was looking at careers outside of rugby," says McLaughlin. "I definitely had second thoughts. I was half thinking to myself 'was I up to it physically? Was I ever going to make a breakthrough?' You get to the age of 24, 25 and it's time to start playing games. So I definitely had doubts but obviously I'm delighted I stuck with it now."

Seeing Jamie Heaslip, an old adversary when the No 8s clashed in their schools cup days, become an Irish superstar and a Lions stalwart would have provided much inspiration. They played together for the Ireland U-21s but it didn't seem that they would ever dovetail at senior level. Until now.

"He looked for a pretty honest answer off Michael (Cheika) and got one," reports his proud provincial colleague. "He decided to give it a go and it has gone his way. It shows the character that he is that he bided his time and had the belief in his ability."


While replacing Elsom was a huge task, despite Brian O'Driscoll's assertion that it ended up being a "fairly seamless" transition, the shoes of Stephen Ferris are no less daunting to fill.

However, his tackling, line-out skills, physicality and ability to take a line tick all the boxes. And listening to the Irish brains trust, it is as if his graduation has always been a gestational thing.

"He's fought his way in," is Declan Kidney's affirmation. "Rocky was in a position last year but he has fought his way in. He said he wanted to play a certain number of games, he did that. He's accomplished himself very well.

"We felt that he was going well in November but we didn't actually front up in our own mind then because we felt that he had put such an effort into September and October that we didn't want to overplay him in November, thinking that if we needed to we could call on him."

Heaslip confirms that off the field, his colleague is "pretty laid-back". Potential fourth line-out jumper McLaughlin, all 6' 4'' and 16st 9lbs of him, was taking it all in his immense stride.

"I wouldn't say I'm shocked," he says. "Training went quite well last week, I was fitting in with team. I wasn't trying to build my hopes up too much. So I couldn't say I was shocked -- but pleased, really pleased."

Facing Italy is not a job for choir boys but McLaughlin's bristling form this season will be suited to confronting the Azzurri. "My job is to be the hammer man of the team," he says with a smile.

It's not something that's often heard in banking circles, but you've got to give this guy some credit.

  • LEINSTER have confirmed they will use the RDS, and not Croke Park, as the venue for their Heineken Cup quarter-final with Clermont Auvergne on April 9.

Irish Independent

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