Jack McGrath lives and breathes rugby on a daily basis, but is first to admit that he fell into the game by chance rather than following a boyhood dream.
“I’d been hanging around with a few lads who were a bit older than me and they told me to come up to St Mary’s Rugby Club and give it a go. I didn’t really know what rugby was about at that stage and didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into,” he confesses.
He was quick to find out he’d have to go it alone saying: “Obviously when I arrived at the club I was told to play with the lads my own age, which meant I was split up from my mates, but I gave it a go and once I got stuck in, I loved it.”
The Ireland and Leinster prop is a legend in the halls of St Mary’s College in Rathmines, but he explains that if it wasn’t for that early foray into club rugby, that this may not have been the case.
“I was meant to go to Terenure College like my uncles before me, but having joined the Mary’s club when I’d moved to the Templeogue area and made some good friends there, the decision to go to Mary’s was easy.”
And it proved to be a great decision for McGrath, who would represent Mary’s in the Junior Cup in 2005 before being catapulted into the Senior Cup team for his final three years of school after establishing himself as a powerhouse in the front-row.
Looking back at these years, McGrath has plenty of great memories and is honest enough to admit that while he put his rugby ahead of his studies, it shaped the person he is today.
“I probably didn’t take my studies as seriously as I should’ve and I never ended up going to college, which is a bit unfortunate, but, to be honest, if I hadn’t played rugby, I would’ve ended up learning a trade or being a labourer. I think I’m rather lucky, because there aren’t a lot of people who can say they get paid to do something they love.”
Yet despite the early signs of his talent and huge love of the game, McGrath didn’t actually make the decision to pursue a career in the sport until his final year of school when his side were devastatingly beaten 11-10 in the 2008 Senior Cup final by Belvedere College.
“You never really think too much about going on to play for Leinster or Ireland at that age. In sixth year, we had a very good team and getting to the final, only to miss out at the final hurdle, really annoyed me. I suppose it pushed me on to want to achieve as much as I could in the game.”
Yet the progression from schools rugby powerhouse to Leinster Academy graduate wasn’t an easy one for McGrath, who recounts: “My first tour away with the Leinster Schools team to South Africa was definitely a learning curve for me. I wasn’t the fittest going into the tour and was told if I didn’t get my act together, my shot with Leinster would be out the window. I only played one game on tour, but I worked my socks off in training and realised what it takes to become a top professional.”
McGrath still does his best to support his old school and says: “I try to make it to as many games as I can and I helped out a good bit with the Mary’s team last year.”
He stresses how fondly he remembers his own time in school saying: “Those cold nights out training in the dark with your mates are some of the best memories I have of my school days and the bonds you make out on that pitch, stick with you for life.”
Watching the current crop of players, McGrath feels the difference in the game is clear to see and believes “the standard today is worlds away from when I was in school. The training programmes and the general quality of play are all fantastic. The success of the provinces and national team has really pushed young players to want to achieve something in the game and the shape the lads are in leaving school is something I have seen first-hand in the Leinster academy.”
With that in mind, McGrath is quick to point out that he realises what it takes to stay at the top and says: “I’m always compared to Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne, who are both fantastic players, and that keeps me motivated to keep improving and show that I can reach the levels needed to compete with these guys.
“If I had to pick one word which would define my success it would be dedication. If you work hard and stick to your goals I believe that you can achieve anything.”
Strong words for any young player who might be embarking on a rugby journey of their own and who might wish to emulate the success of the Leinster and Irish star.