Wednesday 16 October 2019

Patience finally pays off for resilient McGrath

Injuries have forced Leinster scrum-half to bide his time on international front

Eyes on the prize: Being a leader in the Leinster dressing-room has helped scrum-half Luke McGrath adjust to less familiar surroundings with Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Eyes on the prize: Being a leader in the Leinster dressing-room has helped scrum-half Luke McGrath adjust to less familiar surroundings with Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

When Luke McGrath was dreaming of playing at the World Cup, if you had told him that his debut would come on the wing in one of the tournament's biggest upsets, it very quickly would have descended into a nightmare.

It was a case of needs must last weekend as bodies dropped amidst the carnage in Shizuoka.

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Square pegs were placed in round holes as Garry Ringrose had to fill in at inside centre with Jordan Larmour outside of him and McGrath on the wing.

It summed up a hugely frustrating evening for everyone involved, not least McGrath who would never have imagined that his first World Cup appearance would work out like that.

That the 26-year-old was even in the position to be called upon in the first place is a testament to the resilience that he has shown over the last couple of years.

It hasn't all been plain sailing for McGrath since he made his international debut three years ago.

A couple of serious knee injuries ruled him out of the last two Six Nations, during which time Kieran Marmion had seemingly established himself as Conor Murray's back-up.

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Given how much Joe Schmidt has trusted Marmion in recent years, it was something of a surprise that the Connacht scrum-half was omitted at the expense of McGrath.

But such was his form with Leinster last season as well as his understanding with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery, McGrath leapfrogged Marmion in the pecking order.

Of his 16 caps to date, only three have come from the start. None of the three came in the Six Nations, which makes today's clash against Russia comfortably the biggest start of McGrath's international career.

Having Sexton guiding the way beside him will help massively because, inevitably, there will be nerves.

McGrath, however, admits that this chance on the main stage has felt like a long time coming:

"Yeah it does, especially with the Six Nations, I seem to get injured just before that. It has been really positive all summer," he says.

"My knee that has been causing me a few issues has settled down now, so I am really looking forward to getting into it and starting my first World Cup game.

"All summer it was a really highly-contested position. To get the nod ahead of someone with Kieran's quality was brilliant. I feel very lucky and privileged to be part of this squad."

McGrath's humble nature has seen him grow into one of the main leaders in the Leinster dressing-room.

A regular captain with his home province, shouldering that extra responsibility has helped him feel that bit more comfortable when he comes into the Ireland set-up.

"I feel like I have gone well with Leinster and put my foot forward at times," he maintains.

"It's just about getting this opportunity on the big stage and proving that I can play here.

"We have great leaders in here. Obviously Pete (O'Mahony), Johnny, (Rory) 'Besty', I am learning a lot of leadership qualities off them as well.

"We still have a young group so when I do get a chance to lead, I think scrum-half is a leader position anyway, so I try to lead the pack in front of us and get the ball to the backs as quick as possible. It's a natural role for a scrum-half."

The captaincy will fall on McGrath's half-back partner today as Sexton leads his country from the start for the first time.

The Leinster duo will be expected to set the tempo and dictate the play against Russia as Ireland look to get their World Cup campaign back on track.

"I feel lucky to be able to play with a person of Johnny's calibre the whole time," McGrath enthuses. "He leads by example and sets the standards. It's great that I have played with him loads of times.

"He screams at me to get the ball out quicker! When I make a wrong decision, he lets me know. No, I am only messing. He has been brilliant.

"Like I said, he just sets the standards. He tries to get perfection with absolutely everything and it just shows how good he is as a player.

"I really enjoy playing with him. It's like having a teacher out there at times. He knows what to do at the right times. I just listen to him most of the time and hopefully he's happy."

Tuesday's training session with the Kobe Steelers afforded McGrath the chance to catch up with his former PE coach at St Michael's, Dave Dillon.

The Kiwi is working as head coach of the Japanese club with former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith director of rugby.

McGrath was delighted to get the chance to catch up with Dillon, even if it was a surprise meeting.

"He was actually my PE coach in St Michael's for a while," he recalls. "I only found out on Monday he was here. It was just funny seeing a face like that. He coached myself and James Ryan.

"He is a great character and doing really well with Kobe."

Ireland's captain's run took place at the stadium in Kobe yesterday where they got a taste of what the conditions will be like.

McGrath, however, knows that a run-through in an empty stadium will be very different to facing Russia in front of a packed house.

"It is definitely something we are wary of," he adds.

"You don't often see people lose their footing that quickly and the ball was very slippy so there were a lot of knock-ons and stuff like that.

"We will have to adapt to the conditions as I heard it was extremely hot at that (Scotland) game.

"Look, we have plays in there where we can kick it a little bit more, maybe play like it's a rainy day at times. We are aware of it so hopefully we can adapt to it."

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