Saturday 17 March 2018

Jack McGrath has no complaints about splitting pitch time with old pal

Jack McGrath aims to make the most of his experience in the
Six Nations
Jack McGrath aims to make the most of his experience in the Six Nations
David Kelly

David Kelly

They say the best drive at Augusta National is Magnolia Lane.

History and anticipation swirl like rumours all down the tree-lined trek, as if the branches were arms beckoning the driver to chart a course not only in anticipation of mighty deeds to come, but to recall so many years of greatness before.

It is a slightly more epic journey, one can assume, than the winding avenue that takes you from the main road to Carton House in Maynooth, dissecting the two Montgomerie courses.

Unless you're a rugby player embarking upon that maiden trip.

Since Carton House became Irish rugby's training HQ over a decade ago, many players have arrived here for the first time feeling a sense of spine-tingling expectancy.

For Jack McGrath, November 2013 marked his maiden voyage towards the great house, where Joe Schmidt was also laying down the plans for his opening assault on the international rugby world.

Jack McGrath in action for Ireland. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jack McGrath in action for Ireland. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

McGrath knew Schmidt, of course, and so many of the players he would soon meet. But much was also unknown. The anticipation. The dread. The excitement.

"You have Paul O'Connell there," he recalls. "You're thinking to yourself, 'Jaysus I better be on top form here because I want to impress these guys.' Rory (Best) as well, these idols you look up to. You feel nervous but they always made you comfortable and it soon became an enjoyable place to come to.

"I knew what Joe expected of me and I was lucky to start with a few experienced players, I went in with confidence. It was a really exciting week. I didn't think I'd be selected but then I knew a few days before the game.

"The pack really helped me along and it was a special day."


That debut against Samoa passed seamlessly. By his reckoning, he had spent the guts of four seasons not only trying to break that particular glass ceiling, but also trying to elbow his way into a Leinster side.

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At times, it seemed beyond him and, he has no hesitation in revealing, made him contemplate where exactly his future lay as Leinster rivals seemed to be blocking his impatient ambition.

"I got capped at 24," he explains. "Some of the guys now are getting capped at 21 and 22. It's very impressive these guys are getting capped so young.

"Cian Healy and Heinke van der Merwe were at Leinster and between them, they hadn't missed a game for about four years.

"So I was on AIL and Leinster A duty and getting the odd 20 minutes here or there off the bench in the Celtic League.

"There are times you think 'will I stay one more year' or whatever but they had faith in me when Heinke left and I became the back-up to Cian.

"And now it's the case that we're pushing each other for starts every week and getting better. That's great for all of us."

Ultimately, the roles were reversed between Healy and McGrath as, firstly, injuries and then simply his own blistering form saw McGrath command the No 1 green jersey, starting all but two of the last 15 championship games.

That pre-eminence saw him assume the Lions jersey, yet his struggles with form and fitness since that epic New Zealand tour, combined with Healy's remarkable renaissance from career-threatening injury, have injected renewed edge into their rivalry.

Indeed, aside from perhaps minor quibbles in the back three and back-row, the main bone of contention when the Irish brains trust assess selection this week will be the choice in the front-row.

Fierce arguments will rage beyond the ancient walls of Carton House; within them, there will be little resentment between the pair, merely reinforcement.

"We have a good thing, myself and Cian. It's lucky we're both in Leinster together and then we can come into Ireland camp and push each other, make each other better players," says McGrath.

"One may start one week and one may start the other. You have to share the time. Both of us understand that.

"It's about giving your all for those 50 or 60 minutes, starting or not. I'd be team-based. I wouldn't be thinking 'oh, I have to start this particular game'.

"I don't think I have to be better than Cian because I'm a different player to Cian. I didn't get this far by trying to copy anyone else.

"I've done it my way and it's worked for me. So I need to try to stick with that. I feel I'm getting my form back up, my fitness levels are good and I feel confident.

"I'm enjoying my rugby again after a tough month before Christmas. I'm looking forward to the Six Nations, getting into a few match-day squads and picking up a few wins."

His roller-coaster professional career - no more than the personal life he has spoken about before - has taught him how to moderate the highs and lows. He emerged into a Leinster title-winning side, then won two straight Six Nations titles before experiencing a barren spell at provincial and international level, even though his personal performances continued to thrive.

"I know games are 80 minutes and they don't always go your way. I just wanted to get better and I knew there were loads of things that I needed to improve upon," he says. "Playing in so many big games, losing some, it nearly helps you down the line.

"I feel it is paying dividends. I can give off that experience of winning and losing big games so younger players don't have to shoulder a burden of losing big games to gain their experience. But it's better to gain experience from winning. That's a much better habit."

Canterbury, official kit supplier to the Ireland rugby team, has unveiled the new indent training range which will be worn by Ireland players during the Six Nations. The kit features ground-breaking new technologies and is available to buy from and Intersport Elverys stores nationwide.

Irish Independent

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