Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 4°C
# player movement
McGrath's Ulster switch leaves Cullen with 'mixed thoughts, depending on the day'
The prop will leave Leinster at the end of the season after deciding to pursue greater opportunities in Belfast.

“WHAT ARE MY thoughts? A little bit mixed, I’d say, depending on the day,” Leo Cullen laughs as he’s asked about Jack McGrath becoming the latest Leinster player to pursue opportunities elsewhere. 

The loosehead prop, who will make his 143rd appearance for his native province tonight, has made ‘the difficult decision’ to leave Leinster at the end of this season in order to a bid to reignite his career in Belfast.

Jack McGrath celebrates winning Gary Carr / INPHO On the move: McGrath's Ulster move was confirmed this week. Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

His form has dipped in the three years since he was a starter for the Lions in New Zealand, and any efforts to return to his best have been hindered by injuries and the resurgence of Cian Healy.

Not only has McGrath fallen behind Healy in the pecking order, but Ed Byrne’s selection for last weekend’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster confirmed his status as Leinster’s third-choice. It’s a similar situation now with Ireland, after he made just one appearance off the bench during the Six Nations. 

McGrath’s solution was to look elsewhere and unlike Joey Carbery’s move to Munster last summer, it appears the 29-year-old initiated the move himself, which was facilitated by the IRFU as he is still under central contract.  

The St Mary’s man — who made his Leinster debut back in 2010 — follows Jordi Murphy up the M1 and joins an ever-growing number of Leinster men in the Ulster dressing room, the tally set to rise to 11 for next season. It’s a growing trend.

Carbery’s exit to their southern rivals caused annoyance within Leinster and the province’s hierarchy and management will no doubt be frustrated and disappointed to lose another home-grown international from their ranks.

With Leinster’s unrivalled production line causing serious competition for places within their dressing room, players will naturally begin to seek better opportunities elsewhere, with Murphy, Carbery, Nick McCarthy and now McGrath all recent examples.

It’s not exactly an alarming haemorrhage of talent, but Leinster are becoming victims of their own success to a degree, the defending European and Pro14 champions simply unable to keep every individual satisfied, even if Cullen has used 55 different players this season. Players are far more willing to move to better their chances of international selection.

There’s also the argument that Leinster are now paying for the other three province’s failure to produce quality players out of their academy systems on a consistent basis, with IRFU performance director David Nucifora keen to evenly distribute the talent to all corners of the island for the betterment of the national team. 

And there is no doubt McGrath’s move to Ulster is a positive in that sense, with the prospect of regular and consistent game-time in the number one jersey offering the 54-time capped international the chance to rediscover his best form in competition with young Eric O’Sullivan.

“I understand the move from Jack’s point of view,” Cullen says. “It’s not an easy thing for him to have chosen to do. For us as a club, when things are going well I think lots of eyes get drawn on players, coaches, backroom staff, which is a positive, because it means there’s lot of things going well here.

“And yeah, it’s a very competitive group that we have. Loosehead is a very competitive position as well, amongst lots of other competitive positions.”

Leo Cullen Tommy Dickson / INPHO Cullen speaking with media yesterday. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Although the Leinster head coach admitted his thoughts on McGrath becoming the latest player to leave for another province ‘are a little bit mixed’, Cullen tried to emphasise the positives from the situation.

“Potentially, yeah, we are a victim of our success but it is what it is, so I’d rather be in that situation than nobody looking at any of our players because none of them are performing well.

“So for us, we’re just trying to create a good environment where players are happy that they are progressing and they see progression all the time, and that we’re competing on the big days in the competitions that we’re in.

And that’s what why we all turn up and there’s a number of young guys on the bench and some starting again tonight against Benetton who are getting the opportunity, and it’s pushing them through.

“We want to give guys chances and we want to set them up to do well.” 

There is a real danger of more players following suit in the coming years, as they see the benefit of leaving Leinster and playing minutes elsewhere. Carbery’s exposure at Munster has aided his development no end.  

The loss of McGrath, for example, puts pressure on Byrne to step up behind Healy, while Peter Dooley is the other loosehead on the Leinster books. Byrne’s form over the last year has been encouraging and after enduring his fair share of injury frustration behind him, has developed into an exciting prospect in blue. 

Cullen, again choosing to seek the positives, stresses that the movement of players is just all part of the cycle, and another group will enter the province’s system during the summer as everyone moves up the ladder.

“You lose the more experienced guys but everyone is a year older in the system,” he continues. “We know we’ve got seven or eight players coming into our academy system every year, so that’s just the cycle.

People have to move on somewhere else up the chain. Everyone buys into that.

“And we just need to keep investing in the quality of player we have. When it doesn’t work out for players for whatever reason, players go off and play for another province it’s a really good reflection, a positive reflection on the work that goes on at all the underage levels at Leinster.

“We want to produce most of our own players, we have a couple of guys from outside — one’s beside me here [Scott Fardy] — and it’s important that we’re not 100% all Leinster because then you’d have a narrow focus as well.

“The experience that we get from outside, it’s hugely important that they are constantly adding to the group.

Jack McGrath Ryan Byrne / INPHO McGrath starts against Benetton in the Pro14 tonight. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“But we’d love to be able to sit here and say ‘isn’t it amazing that 60% of Ulster’s players are from Leinster’, another 50 over in Connacht and another 50 over in Munster… that’d be an amazing reflection on the work that goes on here.

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“We just need to keep focusing on what we do in producing good players, because we want to see quality players come through the system and make a career out of the game.

“That’s what we’re trying to do, trying to improve players and make them better.

“Sometimes if you focus on a lot of players it gets very competitive, at some stage you can’t keep them all. But for us as a club, it’s more important that we focus on how we produce quality players, have good people and hope they enjoy the experience.

“So, that’s the way I look at it. There are lots of things you can’t control in that, but that’s just the cycle isn’t it? It is what it is. It’s positive that people are looking at our players, wanting to sign them.”

Cullen adds that Leinster are not in the business of ‘stockpiling players’, rather investing in them to make them better rugby players and people.  

“We are not in a position of stockpiling players and, suddenly, we’ve got whatever it is, 45 in the senior squad, 20 in the academy. It doesn’t change drastically, a couple here and there.

“It’s not like we are going to keep 100 players this year. It’s not what we do. We don’t have the space for them. It would get too congested in the dressing room. It is tight enough as it is, I would say, from my memory of being down there.

“The young guys are important for us, how we invest in them, the quality of coaching is important, how we take care of guys, making sure they do come through.

“We’ve a good track record of that and that’s why people want to be here in the first place. We just need to stay competitive as well.”

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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