McGrath tenacity earns him the call over Marmion's past Test triumphs

The Connacht man had stepped up to deliver on some of the most impressive Irish performances in recent years.

“LUKE, I THINK he thought he was a number 8…”

It has been a common enough refrain of Joe Schmidt to highlight incidents when Luke McGrath has flung his relatively under-sized frame into the mixer with opposition forwards.

That sort of tenacity, according to Jamie Heaslip on Channel 4 commentary this weekend, earned the 26-year-old the nickname of ‘The Ferret’… along with a place in Joe Schmidt’s 31-man squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

From the moment John Cooney was cut from the squad before Ireland set off for a training camp in Portugal, it was clear enough that there would be room for just two scrum-halves on the plane to Japan.

luke-mcgrath McGrath sealed his spot against Wales. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It was always going to be a tight call between McGrath and Kieran Marmion, so perhaps we should not feel so surprised that one was selected over the other. However, for all intents and purposes, the Connacht 9 appeared to be sustaining his push as the main front-runner to challenge Conor Murray’s starting slot.

Coming into the August pre-World Cup warm-ups Marmion had amassed almost 300 minutes more than McGrath during this four-year cycle. And while McGrath narrowed that minute count by about 40 over the last three Tests, it’s tough to pin-point exactly where Marmion put a foot wrong.

If at all.

“Kieran Marmion is a guy who you’d hold up as (having) done some fantastic stuff for us,” Schmidt said today.

It’s that balance of past performance. Conor Murray has been a world-leading scrum-half and Luke McGrath has been incredibly good this season. It was a very tough decision to come to.” 

It took a serious amount of time and effort for Marmion to earn enough trust from his head coach to take a starting scrum-half role. When Murray sustained a shoulder injury in the 2017 loss away to Wales, half-time came and went before the replacement was sent on in Cardiff.

He made certain to repay the faith when it was handed his way, the following week he started just his second Test (13th cap) when England’s march to a second Grand Slam was detailed in Dublin. And when Murray’s neck injury kept him out of the first half of last season, it was Marmion who stepped in to partner Johnny Sexton in the November win over New Zealand.

With Connacht, he excelled in an exciting high-tempo attack, but wearing the green of Ireland the 27-year-old has worked to rein in those instincts. He has endeavoured to fit in, replicating what Murray brings to the table as best he can rather than require the national team to change for him.

kieran-marmion-chris-farrell-conor-murray-and-dave-kearney Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

McGrath brings his own array of attacking threats to Japan and there will be no surprise if one of his terrific trademark trail runs yields a try at some point during the pool phase. However, the Leinster scrum-half has started just three Tests in three years. And the 13 caps to his name rank him above only Jack Carty and Jean Kleyn on the plane to Japan. 

The selection tells us that Schmidt will place a lot of faith in McGrath’s provincial partnership with Sexton (and, previously Joey Carbery). It also means that there can be absolutely no doubt over the form and fitness of Murray.

After his return from neck injury midway through last season, the Munster and Lions 9′s performances came under scrutiny during the Six Nations, though it likely had more to do with the collective struggle than a personal dip.

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A blow to the head/neck during the loss to England was an added concern that Irish rugby didn’t need.

conor-murray-is-checked-out-by-the-medical-staff Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The task now falls solely to McGrath to push and challenge for the first-choice berth he earned with such aplomb at the 2011 World Cup.

The Dubliner has held up his end of the bargain with excellent outings in training and, of course, laying his body at times such as the the try-saver against Wales on Saturday, making physical impressions that are well out of his weight class.

With any luck, he’ll feel that warm glow of Schmidt’s praise for his work on the ball too, and shed that ‘Ferret’ tag.

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Sean Farrell

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