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Dublin: 8 °C Monday 10 December, 2018

'I struggled with the selection': McGrath gearing up for return to number 1 after rare absence

Missing out on a big Test match was a new experience for McGrath.

LAST SATURDAY, WHILE Ireland were trouncing South Africa from the front row back, Jack McGrath found himself in an usual position.

Off the field, with no boots. Fit, but unable to impact the contest. A Lion in the summer, an untapped squad resource come the second week of November.

Jack McGrath Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Since making his international debut the same day as Schmidt began his reign in charge of Ireland, McGrath has racked up caps at a rate of knots, appearing in 41 of 44 Tests before going away with the Lions. Despite the intense loosehead competition from Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne, when McGrath missed a Test it was a rest.

He trained in the days leading up to the Springboks clash, but Schmidt pointed to him missing the previous week’s sessions as a factor in a rare big-match omission. With Kilcoyne missing training yesterday, McGrath is primed to make his return to a green jersey when Fiji come to town this Saturday.

“It was hard to take,” says McGrath as he squeezes himself into a chair in Carton House.

“I struggled last week with the selection, but I realised that the boys were playing well. You have to respect that, you have to respect the coach’s decision.”

That struggle took the form of McGrath taking himself aside and doing some big-picture self appraisal.

‘It’s not the end of the world,’ says the 28-year-old, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fair amount of readjustments to be made. Rather than focus on the minute details of his own game and the tight five, his attention must be turned to doing whatever’s best for Healy and Kilcoyne.

I haven’t been in a position like that before. It was just a different week for me than I had  been used to for weeks of big games. When that happens to you, you reevaluate things and you step back and realise how lucky you are to be where you are.

“It was hard, but the lads did a great job. I think when these sort of setbacks happen it makes you stronger as a person and a player.”

“Once I wasn’t selected it was 100% into getting those lads ready for the game, so when we trained on Tuesday: ‘get the lads ready for the game…’

“Whoever wasn’t selected previously would have done the same for us. You don’t just mope around and think ‘this is shit,’ it’s a squad effort and I like to think my effort during the week helped to build the lads’ performance on Saturday.”

Jamie George, Elliot Daly, Liam Williams and Jack McGrath Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

McGrath’s summer exploits in New Zealand are an inescapable factor in this particular struggle. Sometimes, there’s just no way to fast-forward the process of ramping up into a new season and when a heavy-hitter like McGrath comes back to training a month late, it takes time to get up to speed.

We presume it doesn’t help that Healy is five kilos lighter and bouncing around Leinster and Ireland training looking back to his best, but for McGrath?

“I don’t think too much like that. I don’t come back in and think ‘oh shit, I’m behind lads.’

I find I forget I’ve come back four or five weeks later and then when someone mentions it to you it is a bit of reassurance that that is actually how it is. It’s not that you are doing anything wrong. You just might need a few more minutes in a game or a bit more time in training.”

“When I came through first I was behind him and it’s always the way with the two of us in Leinster. And with Killer now as well, they want three or four guys knocking on their door. The coaches want guys playing well and if you’re not playing well you’re not going to get picked.

“You do appreciate what guys go through. Until you’re put in that position it is hard to say: ‘I know how I would react to that’. You have to take it and sometimes you do have to step back and say: ‘I haven’t become a bad player overnight’.

“It’s about going back to your basics, what got you to where you are and not having negative thoughts and thinking ‘this is the end of me now’. It’s just one decision and you can make a difference in your training week this week

“If I am picked on Saturday you can try and put your hand up for selection. If you are trying too hard to play too well you can nearly try too hard and make a lot of mistakes.”

The ability to strike that delicate balance is precisely what made McGrath such a key component of Schmidt’s front row.

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Sean Farrell

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