THE REASON THE neck-and-neck battle for Ireland’s number one jersey has been so absorbing over the years is that Jack McGrath and Cian Healy display neither any distaste for losing out to the other, nor give the impression they’re ever willing to settle for being back-up.
Leinster’s top two looseheads have occupied the same standing for Ireland since McGrath came into the international fold at the same time as Joe Schmidt in 2013. Earlier that year, Cian Healy was named in the original Lions touring squad, but an ankle injury in the first game on Australian soil denied him further involvement.
McGrath was the Irish loosehead for the class of 2017 and he played a vital role in the drawn series, finishing all three Tests against New Zealand.
However, his exertions against the All Blacks, coupled with a truncated pre-season, carried over and impacted his performance in November, McGrath admits.
“I probably just came back a little bit undercooked,” says the 28-year-old.
“I hadn’t played a lot of games up until that point (in November). I think I played three games coming into it and some guys had a good few games. So it was just probably a bit of lack of fitness and carrying a few knocks and the two lads, Killer and Cian, were playing really well at the time.
“It just kind of came at a bad time for me. It was what it was. It was just a learning curve for me, so if I ever feel that dip in form I know what to do next time.”
The mental play in that instance, the Dubliner says, is to rip it all up and start the campaign over in his own head.
“I’ve worked hard since November. I just went back and sort of started from square one again.
“I wasn’t where I needed to be in November. Luckily I have been able to put a string of games together and do what I’ve needed to do off the pitch to get the head right.”
Getting the head right has stemmed from having his body back in peak condition. And, handed the number one shirt again for Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Italy, McGrath is looking forward to going about his business again.
“When you are not able to do something, it becomes mental. So it’s just peeling back… I don’t think you have to look into it too deeply because if you start looking into it too deeply, you nearly confuse yourself as to what the actual problem is.
It’s not a lot of things, it’s one thing. So peel it back and do this and everything else will roll on from there.”
“I think everyone goes through peaks and troughs. Sometimes it’s not to be worrying all of the time because, if you’re worrying the whole time, it is mentally draining. From my experience of playing at a high level now, I know you don’t have to be worrying all of the time.
“There are certain times when you are able to switch off and certain times when you have to be sharp. And when you do that correctly I believe that you come into games and times when you’re mentally prepared.”
“I probably worried about stuff that was uncontrollable. For me now, when I make a mistake, I just get on with it.
“You are never going to play the perfect game. You want to try and play the best game of your life every time you go out, but it does not always happen but what you can do is try and control things to make you try and play the best game, and prepare well, and just go into games with a confidence and enjoy it. Because people would give their left arm to be where you are and sometimes you forget that.
“When you get away from that, I think, for me, it is difficult, you know?”
“I’ve just started enjoying myself again playing, because when you’re not, and you’re struggling to get around the pitch and not playing well, it’s hard to enjoy it.
“That’s why you play the game – to enjoy it. I’m back to that now and we’re going well so I’m looking forward to getting to the Aviva on Saturday.”