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McGrath out to prove that Ireland's loss is very much Ulster's gain

The prop makes his debut for the northern province in tonight’s Pro14 opener against Ospreys.

A DAY AFTER Cian Healy addressed the throngs of media in Yokohama following Ireland’s opening World Cup win over Scotland, Jack McGrath settles himself into a chair at Kingspan Stadium and introduces himself to all five members of the assembled media that have hung back in Belfast.

Ideally, he’d have been doing this in late October or early November having returned triumphant from Japan with Ireland and in front of several more reporters. Or having gone to Japan at all. Instead, he sits in the media suite at Ulster Rugby headquarters and bites the bullet that is talking about getting that phone call.

jack-mcgrath McGrath at Kingspan Stadium this week. Source: Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Ulster, and former Leinster, team-mate Jordi Murphy said it was one of the lowest points of his career when he got the news.

“Absolutely, yeah,” concurs McGrath.

It was always going to be a straight shot between himself and Dave Kilcoyne to back up certain starter Cian Healy at the World Cup. With Andrew Porter the all-important fifth prop — the man who can cover loosehead and tighthead — there was no room for both and, in the end, it was Kilcoyne who won out.

When head coach Joe Schmidt made the decision official by informing McGrath that his services wouldn’t be needed at the World Cup, it was the final blow in what has been a rapid decline for the 29-year-old. Two years ago he was an indispensable Lions loosehead. Now he’s back in Ireland while his international compatriots aim to make history.

He could yet end up in Japan should injuries strike the front row, although McGrath himself admits even he’s not letting that entertain his mind.

“To be honest I’m not even thinking about that. I am staying fit here and my full focus is with Ulster,” he says.

For some, that rejection would be enough to dent their confidence for a long time. But, then again, this isn’t a normal stage of McGrath’s career.

He’s just made the decision to switch Leinster blue for Ulster white to earn more game time and, hopefully, the attention of the international selectors. While it’s not a new phenomenon, a player moving from Leinster to Ulster – -see Murphy, Alan O’Connor, Nick Timoney and, in a roundabout way, John Cooney all before him — McGrath’s move is the most high profile so far.

While he had seen game time dispersed elsewhere behind Healy, with Ed Byrne getting plenty of reps at loosehead even when he was fit, McGrath was still seen as being part of the furniture at the RDS. He wasn’t happy with that, though. When Ulster offered him a lifeline, he snapped it up, knowing that it may be what he needed to revive his international career.

With the move not coming into effect until this season, it was too late for a World Cup spot. But while missing out on a trip to Japan has hurt, he’s taking the positives.

“Obviously it’s not a great phone call to get from Joe, but for me, I was obviously upset for a couple of days but I tried to step back and take the positives from it,” explains McGrath.

“The opportunity to go to a new club and hit the ground running and play hopefully a lot of games at the start of the season (is a positive), because I hadn’t played a lot last season which was just frustrating. So for me, I just needed to get back playing rugby.

“It’s a blessing in disguise not getting picked. It is pretty painful, but I am taking the positives from it to come up here and get stuck in.”

As with any player, leaving their home province, particularly for another Irish side, is a decision that’s not taken lightly. David Nucifora’s New Zealand-style free movement between teams is gathering pace by the year, but it’s still one that is in its infancy and requires careful consideration.

jack-mcgrath The prop starts against Ospreys in the Pro14 tonight. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Add in that McGrath has departed a side that won a trophy in seven of his nine seasons with the club. In that time, Ulster have won none. The challenge of entering an environment that is not accustomed to being champions will be a new one for the St Mary’s man.

Now, of course, Ulster are more than just a team unaccustomed to lifting trophies. Under Dan McFarland they have taken strides that seemed impossible at the start of last season and made the knockouts in both the Guinness Pro14 and Champions Cup. For McGrath, he sees a team that is well on its way to being more than just perennial bridesmaids.

“It is difficult to leave but for me it was the challenge of coming to a place that wants to be constantly striving for trophies, and I believe Ulster are going to be doing that from this season onwards,” insists the loosehead.

“The quality of players and quality of coaching staff that is here at the moment and you saw last year that they weren’t a million miles away.

Sometimes you sort of have to get very close to winning a trophy before you actually win one, so the improvement from last year compared to seasons previously was massive, and it’s building. We have recruited well so I think it’s going to be a good season.

Also among the pull factors was the head coach, something that players arriving into the set-up from elsewhere seem to be saying with remarkable consistency.

“I spoke to Dan (before joining). We met and what he put on the table for me definitely helped my decision coming up here and the ideas that he had going forward and what I could bring to the squad and what other guys that were coming could bring to the squad,” reveals McGrath.

“Having been in Leinster for so long, just stepping outside your comfort zone is good for growth, and for me, at this particular time in my career, I thought I would grab it with both hands and I am relishing every opportunity I get because it’s a top-quality set-up, and everything around it is great.”

There’s pressure on Ulster to succeed early in this campaign given they can call on the services of three of Schmidt’s extended training squad for the World Cup and have another — in the shape of Will Addison — waiting in the wings for when he recovers from injury. They’re nowhere near as depleted as other squads, so the expectation is that they can establish themselves early in the season.

Tonight, they welcome the Ospreys to Kingspan Stadium for their Pro14 opener and the thought process it that a team stocked to the brim with talent — including McGrath and fellow debutants Sam Carter and Matt Faddes — will begin the season in winning fashion against a side denied the services of 10 players due to the World Cup.

dan-mcfarland Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

That’s not been talked about in the Ulster dressing room, as McGrath is quick to play down. He’s just eager to finally get playing again in front of a crowd that for so many years bayed against him. Now they’ll be cheering his every step.

“I have a lot of friends and family coming up on Friday, so I am looking forward to running out for the first time,” he reveals with a smile.

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So as Cian Healy fields questions from the world’s media and sees his scrummaging heavily scrutinised by his Japanese counterparts ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup clash, just over 5,800 miles away in Belfast, Jack McGrath gets ready to make his Ulster bow as he begins the next chapter of a career that he hopes has plenty of years left to go.

And with a wise head on strong shoulders, he’s more than ready to prove that Ireland’s loss is very much Ulster’s gain.


15. Matt Faddes
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Luke Marshall
12. James Hume
11. Rob Lyttle
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rob Herring (captain)
3. Tom O’Toole
4. Kieran Treadwell
5. Sam Carter
6. Matthew Rea
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Sean Reidy.


16. John Andrew
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Ross Kane
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Greg Jones
21. David Shanahan
22. Michael Lowry
23. Louis Ludik.


15. Dan Evans
14. Luke Morgan
13. Cory Allen
12. Scott Williams
11. Keelan Giles
10. Luke Price
9. Matthew Aubrey

1. Rhodri Jones
2. Sam Parry
3. Tom Botha
4. Lloyd Ashley
5. James King
6. Dan Lydiate (captain)
7. Olly Cracknell
8. Gareth Evans.


16. Scott Otten
17. Gareth Thomas
18. Gheorghe Gajion
19. Sam Cross
20. Dan Baker
21. Reuben Morgan-Williams
22. Cai Evans
23. Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler.

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