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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 27 January 2021
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Jack McGrath: 'I think I’m pretty light compared to 155 kilos!'

The Ireland loosehead says France pose a particular physical challenge at scrum time.

IT MAY BE that Cian Healy is the Ireland loosehead who has to deal with the brunt of Uini Atonio’s alarming size in Dublin on Saturday evening, but Jack McGrath is prepared for the physical onslaught of a strong French pack.

Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath, Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner At 122kg, McGrath is no shrinking violet himself. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

From replacement tighthead Atonio, through monster sub second row Romain Taofifenua, onto starters Yoann Maestri and Bernard Le Roux, this is a robust French forward unit, even if their actual mass is sometimes overplayed.

“It seems that they’re picking their biggest guys,” says McGrath, who starts at loosehead for Ireland. “They’re still quality players and they’re obviously unbelievably big.

But I think for us as a team we’re never going to be able to compete with their size. So for us, we need to be smarter and fitter and our work rate needs to be higher than theirs, and I think that will shine through rather than the size.”

McGrath is happy to play up the size of the French, although a quick glance at the IRFU and FFR websites suggest Ireland’s starting pack on Saturday will outweigh les Blues‘, 920kg to 901kg.

Strength and power is not all about sheer size though, nor is scrummaging all about size and strength. McGrath agrees that the French front row are “probably not as technically strict as Italy or England,” but insists Rabah Slimani, Guilhem Guirado and Eddy Ben Arous will be tricky opposition.

“They’re notorious for getting out of certain positions when they’re stuck; they’ll stand up and walk around. So for us as a pack we need to try to stay square and be as honest as can for the referee to make a decision.”

La Rochelle prop Atonio looms large on the French bench as tighthead cover, with his reputed 155kg weight having done the rounds on social media in the build-up to this Six Nations.

Uini Atonio and Yoann Huget celebrate after the game Atonio is of rare physical dimensions. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The FFR list him as ‘only’ 146kg, but either way he’s a big man. It’s put to McGrath that Ireland have size of their own to counter the New Zealand native of Samoan descent, but the 122kg Leinster prop laughs it off.

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“I think I’m pretty light compared to 155 kilos!”

McGrath says 6ft 5ins Atonio carries his weight well, but admits he’d struggle to get around the pitch himself if he added another 5kg. Of more pressing concern for McGrath is starting French tighthead Slimani, who has been in superb form for Stade Français this season.

“Slimani is a different body shape altogether,” says McGrath. “He’s quite short and a really dangerous and aggressive scrummager.

So we’re going to have to be on our toes because we’re going to face two different operators and, with how they scrum, it can be unorthodox. Keeping to our basics is what we have to try to do.”

Providing back-up to McGrath on Ireland’s loosehead side is Cian Healy, making his comeback from a long stint out of the game after hamstring injury. Healy has achieved much in the game and enjoys status as one of Ireland’s leading players when fully fit.

McGrath welcomes his provincial teammate back into the fray happily.

“It’s great to have a player of his quality back, it only strengthens the squad,” says the 25-year-old.

“As we always say, you need two quality players in each position to challenge for any championship, so it is great – but it’s like it’s always been, you raise your performance when a guy behind you is pushing for your place.”

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Murray Kinsella

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