Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
PEAKS AND TROUGHS in form are inevitable, tight selection calls and injuries the snakes and ladders of professional sport, but it was really only ever a matter of time before Jack McGrath’s graph was back on some sort of upward trajectory.
Ireland’s pre-eminent loosehead for the last four years, McGrath augmented his standing with involvement in all three Lions Tests in the summer, but found himself off the pace upon his return from New Zealand.
A delayed return to pre-season with Leinster meant he was short of match minutes in the build-up to November and then a slight knock to the hip confirmed McGrath’s slide down the pecking order.
“Form was a factor but Jack will be back,” said Joe Schmidt when he named Cian Healy to start against South Africa in the opening Autumn Test with Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne in reserve.
“He is only just taking contact again.”
For the first time, McGrath’s status and position — both at Leinster and Ireland — was being challenged.
He started the middle fixture against Fiji, but Schmidt confirmed the current hierarchy when returning to the Healy-Kilcoyne combination for the final game against Argentina.
A Lions hangover? It was the obvious answer.
“It was hard to take,” he said at the time.
McGrath wasn’t used to the minor role around Carton House, but the watching brief, and the realisation that his presence — even as a Lion — in the Ireland pack was not as secure as before caused him to re-evaluate. To re-assess.
“After November, I just parked it. I came in, spoke to Leo [Cullen] and the backroom staff and told them what was going on,” he explains. ”They were more than helpful and I put a plan in place for what I needed to do. To get back to where I was.
Source: Bryan Keane
“Like anyone, you need game time to get your fitness up. I’ve been trucking away, trying to do a few extras, trying to get as much down when I come on in a game, try to impress.
“It has all been positive. It is just there are always work-ons.”
Can you go into specifics?
“Just more fitness,” he says.
“At this level, if you are a little bit behind the pace, you stand out in a negative sense.
“For me, it is staying on top of fitness.
“I probably didn’t have enough game time, probably wasn’t doing enough (extra sessions) when that happened. When I came into November, I was probably a little under-cooked and selection didn’t go my way.
“I parked that and I have a regime now that I find is working for me in getting back to the best of my ability.
“I need three or four games and I think I had two or three games, I can’t really remember now. I was just a little bit under-cooked. It happens. I’m not dwelling on it.”
Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty has seen the battle for the number one jersey first hand, as well as McGrath’s commitment over the last six months to get back to where he was before the summer.
He continues: “The big rigs, the front five players, they need to truck. You see it across the provinces, where all those big lads need to be playing games and they need to be playing as regularly as they possibly can.
“Now, you overplay them and they’ll burn out, but he probably came back a little bit, not exactly where he should have been at the start of the season, which led to maybe a slower start than normal for Jack.
“And then mentally, we’ve talked about it before where he’s been up for season upon season and summer tours, Lions tours, I think he had a mental drop off as well. Sometimes that happens.
“How he reacted to it has been really impressive. He made himself a really good plan with the guys in here, physically what he needed to do, and he’s put himself now in a good position.”
McGrath is working hard, but minutes are still difficult to come by.
He’s featured nine times this term for Leinster, six of which have been starts, but in the big games, the ones that really matter, Cullen has leaned towards Healy.
The 28-year-old came off the bench in the 53rd and 48th minute in the back-to-back games against Exeter Chiefs last month, but Healy’s three-week ban for a moment of recklessness at the Aviva Stadium has opened the door for McGrath.
Source: Dan Sheridan
“I think for me I don’t try and be like anyone else,” he says of getting back in the team at Healy’s expense.
“I try and play my own game and play to my strengths. I’ll try not to try too hard because if you try too hard you’re going to make mistakes. For me, consistency is a huge thing.”
But his luck just isn’t in at present.
He captained Leinster for the first time down at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day but a head knock in the first half ended his involvement at the break, and the subsequent return to play protocols ruled him out of contention for the visit of Connacht on Monday.
Nonetheless, the captaincy was a vote of confidence from Cullen and Stuart Lancaster and a proud moment for the St Mary’s clubman who has now racked up 122 appearances for his home province — and is set to feature in Saturday’s Pro14 clash with Ulster.
“It was a massive honour and a bit of a surprise to be honest,” he admits. “I was delighted and no better game to do it in because that can be a tricky fixture as well. There was a lot of talk around selection and all that sort of stuff so we just knew ourselves if we went down and played our game we could get a result. Thankfully that’s what happened. It was great and they’re an easy bunch to lead when it is like that, although saying that it is only once. It was enjoyable, I liked it.”
Would you see yourself as a captain?
“I would have captained Leinster As and a bit in school but never at this level. I was trying to work it out when you hear the team named. I don’t know what I mean by it was a surprise. It was first thing on whatever day we were in, first thing and a surprise like that. It was a nice surprise I suppose.”
It wasn’t so long ago he was one of the kids, now he’s one of the senior players leading the group.
“Yeah, you do forget,” McGrath laughs.
“When you’re here a while you do sort of forget you’re moving up and there’s guys that look up to you and you have to at some stage be more serious around the place.
“When the older guys are there you can get along and do your job but when people are looking up to you you’ve to do that little bit extra and show people what it takes to win games and hopefully win trophies.”
McGrath’s words to his Leinster team-mates before they left the away dressing room to lay siege to Thomond Park were clear, simple and to the point.
“Rugby is simple, it’s a simple game. Play the game you enjoy.”
A message he now abides by himself.
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