Jack McGrath keen to atone for stepping out of line
Leinster prop insists he has learnt lesson after stamp forced him to miss key chunk of season
Sometimes you need to step back in order to move ahead. Jack McGrath only found this out when a rather over-zealous stride in the wrong direction forced him to take more than a pace or two backwards.
Leinster's clash with Ulster at the RDS earlier this year followed the pattern of most: initial resistance from the visitors prior to pitiful collapse, but the home side's dominance was punctured by an errant lack of discipline from their loosehead prop.
Despite the fact that others seemed equally complicit in engaging in the type of no-nonsense rucking that once was the hallmark of the sport, McGrath was singularly fingered by the citing commissioner for leaving his stud marks all over Rory Best.
A three-week ban ensued which, despite initial signs from Leinster that they might appeal, ultimately led to them accepting the decision, with head coach Matt O'Connor pointedly declaring that the player would have to take the consequences.
Those included missing out on Leinster's ultimately successful Champions Cup qualification, as well as imperilling his ability to prove himself ready to tackle Italy in the opening round of his country's Six Nations title defence in Rome.
It was the heaviest price he could pay for his momentary indiscretion; he could only indulge in equally fleeting introspection, albeit his first action was to apologise to his unwitting victim.
"There was no malice behind it," he explains. "I felt he was near the ball and I felt that by rucking on him a few times he might move away from the ball. The referee obviously thought it was a bit too much.
"I gave him a buzz just to apologise about it basically. Looking back on the incident, it was probably the wrong thing to do. These things happened but it's all gone by the wayside now.
"It was one of those things and it's water under the bridge now. It's something that I should not have done. Myself and Rory have spoken about it and there's no hard feelings. It was just one of those things and it's completely forgotten about.
"It's nice to be back after a long absence through unfortunate events. We've trained hard over the last three weeks to try and keep our fitness up. I've been training the same as if I were playing, just not getting selected."
His was hardly the most egregious of rugby sins; many of us who decry the consistent lazy attempts of forwards to accurately complete their breakdown work wouldn't mind a return to age-old values where a bit of a shoeing can act as a convincing deterrent to what is often unregulated cheating in the ruck.
Nevertheless, rugby's often sanctimonious sanctioning denied McGrath almost a month's worth of rugby when he needed it most - and particularly damaging for club and country - especially when Cian Healy has also been marked absent.
After the briefest period of self-flagellation, he focused on trying to do the best for his team, filling in at training for touted opponents and ramping up the work with the video analysts plotting Leinster's European progress.
Safe to say, he doesn't want to view himself as a liability to his side anytime soon.
"It's definitely a learning curve," he admits. "You're learning all the time in rugby.
"It's a mistake I hopefully will never make again. I've definitely learned my lesson. It's a hard rap on the knuckles to take.
"I spoke to a few people when I got the ban and it was just a case of trying to delete it from my mind and focus on whatever positives I could. So then it was a case of trying to help the Leinster squad as much as I could.
"If you keep thinking about what happened, it will end up dwelling on your mind, then you get annoyed and you're no use to anyone. So the best thing is to just get annoyed about it for the day and then just forget about it and move on."
Moving on, he should start for the Wolfhounds this weekend; with Healy not slated to feature, the Lion's participation against Italy remains doubtful, so McGrath may have to shine as he did during the November series.
Active game-time is all important now after his enforced lay-off.
"It's a massive opportunity for a lot of guys to put their hands up to try and get into the team to face Italy," he says of Friday's impending date with destiny for several high-profile championship contenders in Irish Independent Park against a strong English combo.
"I've had a good bit of rugby before now. I've been out on the pitch training and doing scrums, mauls and stuff like that. I will probably be a bit sore if I play on Friday. But I think I should be okay.
"There is no substitution for playing rugby. You can do as much circuits as you want, but when you are back in the thick of it. . . ideally, I wouldn't have liked to have been out for three weeks but that's what happened.
"With guys like Henry Thomas and Kieran Brookes, who, hopefully, I will be coming up against this weekend, they're pretty strong operators. I will have to be on top form."
Last spring, along with Leinster tighthead colleague Marty Moore's status behind Mike Ross, McGrath served as a replacement for Healy in each of the five games that contributed to Ireland's championship success.
Notably, against Italy, he formed the reserve phalanx who secured the late points rush that enabled Ireland to edge the crown on points difference and his ascension, in Healy's absence in November, offers encouragement that he could retain his jersey.
"It's hard to know," he concedes. "I started two games in the November Series. You can look at it like that but then a couple of bad games and you've quality players behind you ready to take your spot. I think it's a good dynamic what's happening.
"There's Cian, myself, Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin, so there's four good players there fighting for one position. I think to try and get the better of each other it's just playing better rugby. It's going to be better for the team all in all."
For now, he will forget what tainted him and instead focus on what it has taught him.