Craig McGrath in action for Boyne during the 2010 Provincial Towns Cup final. Dan Sheridan/INPHO
return of the Mc

Craig McGrath: From Boyne RFC to coaching the Blues in a Super Rugby semi

The Kiwi defence coach joined Eoin Toolan and Gavan Casey on Wednesday’s Rugby Weekly Extra, three days out from the Blues’ clash with the Brumbies.

CRAIG MCGRATH, JUST like his fellow Kiwi and current Auckland Blues colleague Joe Schmidt, cut his coaching teeth in Leinster junior rugby.

Speaking on today’s Rugby Weekly Extra podcast during a brief break in preparation for a Super Rugby semi-final versus the Brumbies on Saturday, the defence coach told Eoin Toolan and Gavan Casey the story of how he and his family swapped Lombardy for Drogheda in 2008, with McGrath departing Viadana and initially extending his playing career with Boyne RFC.

Like Schmidt, who previously also coached McGrath at the Blues (and presented him with a two-page essay’s worth of work-ons after McGrath’s first two training sessions with the famous franchise), the scrum-half would soon become player-coach at Boyne before embarking on an unexpected second career in the sport which has taken him to Melbourne, Suzuka City in Japan and, more recently, back to his hometown of Auckland.

craig-mcgrath McGrath leading the charge for Boyne. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

McGrath was appointed to Leon MacDonald’s Blues coaching ticket in November, taking charge of their defence for the 2022 Super Rugby season. Schmidt, meanwhile, joined in an assistant coaching role.

The Blues topped the regular season table and entered a home play-off opportunity on the back of 12 consecutive victories, equalling the record of the great 1997 side which included stars such as Sean Fitzpatrick, Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brook and Carlos Spencer.

The current generation boasts similarly electrifying stars such as Beauden Barrett, the Ioane brothers, Hoskins Sotutu and Caleb Clarke but crucially, the Blues’ defence has been extremely mean. They ducked-egged fellow semi-finalists the Chiefs in Waikato back in April. They didn’t concede a try in their last-eight clash with the Highlanders last weekend. They have an 81% tackle-success rate, the highest in the competition this season.

caleb-clarke-goes-in-for-a-try Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Defence coach McGrath was quick to firstly praise his predecessors, particularly Tana Umaga who ran their ‘D’ between 2018 and last season’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title win. But he also told Eoin and Gavan of how this season’s Blues squad had taken partial responsibility for its own defensive approach.

“A big thing we did at the start of the year was we asked the players what their perception was; what the players thought about their own defence, about how they defend,” McGrath said.

And then we were actually lucky enough, we had [signed] Luke Romano from the Crusaders and James Tucker from Brumbies and Ricky Riccitelli from the Hurricanes, so we got them up and they spoke about the perception of the Blues from the outside. A lot of the stuff, we already knew but it was interesting — it was really interesting because a lot of it was about workrate. ‘You’ll outwork them’ and all of that type of carry on. But then the boys, they flipped it, they went away and they said, ‘Okay, what do we want to be remembered for in future?’ And a lot of it was the opposite of how they had been perceived.

“They’ve definitely gone a long way to change the perception, that’s for sure,” McGrath added. “Rieko [Ioane] stopping people scoring tries in the Crusaders game comes to mind. We make it hard for teams to score and the boys are pretty proud of it, they’ve bought into it. And when they’ve made that decision, what they want it to look like, then it’s easy for us as coaches. We just come up with systems and bits and pieces to get it right.”

timoci-tavatavanawai-drops-the-ball-before-the-try-line The Blues defence force Moana Pasifika’s Timoci Tavatavanawai to drop the ball over the line. Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO Photosport / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO / Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

On his own defensive philosophy, McGrath described himself as “a big believer in ‘skill pressure’ and putting pressure on the ball.”

“We probably too often overestimate how good a team’s attack is”, he explained, “or overestimate what an attack has got against us defensively. So, my big philosophy is skill pressure and how we get the ball back. We try to flip it on its head and take control of what the attack need to do; we sort of manipulate the attack rather than being reactive to what the attack does.

“We spend a lot of time on our work at the breakdown: one with our tackle but two, post-tackle — so slowing the ball down. We put a lot of pressure on the ball.

“And then we become more about pressuring the man [in possession], but the line is still connected. It’s always connected.

“I think, too, you talk about making reads… We’ve got some players who can make really, really good reads on the edges and they’re quick enough that if they’ve gotten themselves into a bit of a pickle, they can quickly get themselves into a better position. We’re quite lucky in that sense.”

joe-schmidt-with-leon-macdonald Joe Schmidt speaks with Blues head coach Leon MacDonald. Photosport / Brett Phibbs/INPHO Photosport / Brett Phibbs/INPHO / Brett Phibbs/INPHO

There were 21 red cards in Super Rugby this season, albeit sent-off players can be replaced by a substitute after 20 minutes in a law trial which, as of April, World Rugby was considering adopting as canon across both hemispheres.

An increase in red cards is, of course, an inevitable byproduct of increased efforts to protect players from head-high collisions and their potential consequences.

“One thing that I’m definitely seeing in the game”, Eoin Toolan noted, “is that the assist tackler is more often than not the one getting done for the red card; obviously that late picture change of a ball-carrier pivoting in contact and then the assist tackler not being accurate in their tackle height.

“How are you addressing that as a defensive coach?” he asked his former Melbourne Rebels and Melbourne Rising colleague McGrath.

“We’ve put a big emphasis on targeting under the ball,” McGrath replied. “That’s the first thing.

“Then, the second thing — and we haven’t seen it, but we’ve been practicing it; we’ve been talking about that second man coming in, if he can see the carrier lower his height, that he doesn’t drop his shoulder into him, that he sort of chests him a little bit.

“You get away from the shoulder contact and get more of a chest contact. We’re spending a little bit of time on that, just playing around with it a little bit.”

The full podcast with Craig McGrath, Eoin Toolan and Gavan Casey includes McGrath’s tales from life in Drogheda, his experiences of working under — and now alongside — Joe Schmidt, more on his defensive philosophy and how he implements it, a preview of the Blues’ Super Rugby semi-final with the Brumbies, and a look ahead to Ireland’s tour of New Zealand (including McGrath’s choice for the Irish player who he most wished he could add to the Blues’ roster).

To listen in full, and to receive two additional rugby podcasts every week along with all of The42′s other members-exclusive offerings, visit

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