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'We'll definitely miss him' - McGrath's Ulster move driven by Ireland ambition

The 29-year-old is making the move north from Leinster this summer.

THREE SEASONS AGO, Jack McGrath was Ireland and Leinster’s first-choice loosehead prop and deservedly went on to win three Test caps for the Lions in their series draw with the All Blacks in New Zealand. 

Last weekend, the 29-year-old was omitted from Leinster’s matchday squad for their Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster, with Ed Byrne preferred as back-up to starter Cian Healy.

Jack McGrath McGrath is a strong addition for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

One could suggest that the fact that McGrath will be moving to Ulster at the end of this season may have played into Leinster’s decision to leave him out, but Byrne’s excellent form had earned him his place on the bench.

It’s been a deeply frustrating campaign for McGrath, who has had injury and form issues, losing his place in Ireland’s matchday squad for the Six Nations and now for Leinster in their biggest games.

The St Mary’s man is a world-class prop at his best and he has decided that his greatest chance of rediscovering that kind of form is to move north to Ulster next season.

The42‘s understanding is that McGrath himself initiated the move, eager for an opportunity to re-establish himself as a first-choice prop at provincial level, therefore giving him the chance to do the same for Ireland.

He believed that Ulster would provide a better opportunity for him to do so than staying put at Leinster.

54-times capped McGrath is a centrally contracted IRFU player, so the union was always going to be involved in the loosehead prop’s decision-making. 

While McGrath got the ball rolling, it’s likely that IRFU performance director David Nucifora was only too happy to work on getting this one over the line.

Jack McGrath McGrath at Leinster training this week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

From the beginning of his time with the union, Nucifora has been keen for the talent in Ireland to be spread amongst the provinces, avoiding any stockpiling of players in one position at one province.

The frustration for Leinster is that their homegrown players are now increasingly willing to look elsewhere.

The Joey Carbery move to Munster was different to McGrath’s in that the IRFU went to the player with the suggestion of moving, but the result has been the same.

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That move has worked out superbly for Munster and Carbery, who is so happy in Limerick that he’s already extended his contract. It looks like the amount of game time he will get at out-half in the coming years will also prove deeply beneficial for Ireland.

It’s hard not to think that McGrath going north is positive for Ireland too, given that he will likely have the scope to start more games and rediscover his best form.

23-year-old Eric O’Sullivan won’t be handing over Ulster’s number one shirt without a fight and has been excellent this season, but he may benefit from learning from the experience of McGrath next season and beyond. 

Privately, Leinster’s coaching staff will be frustrated again but publicly, McGrath’s current team-mates can understand his decision.

“It’s a tough one for us to lose a player of the calibre of Jack,” said Robbie Henshaw at the launch of the Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Summer Camps. “He’s unbelievable and he’s a Lion, he’s been on that tour and has so many caps for Ireland, so much experience. To have him in the squad is great.

Jack McGrath with Callum Black and Sean Reidy McGrath in action against Ulster last season. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“That’s the modern situation we’re in now with players moving around the country. Hopefully, it’s the best option for him to get more rugby and what not, for his reasons to go.

“We’ll definitely miss him in Leinster and he’s a quality player.

“I think ultimately you play for whatever team you play for but the goal is the green shirt, to get into the Ireland jersey and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons Jack has chosen to move.

“That’s the goal as a player, you want to be playing international rugby for your own country.”

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Murray Kinsella

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