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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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'I had to be brutally honest with myself - I wasn't playing good enough to be there'

After the disappointment of missing out on Ireland’s summer tour, James Tracy has used an extended pre-season to get himself in peak condition.

A COUPLE OF players have referred to a quote from Stuart Lancaster during the pre-season period, in which the Leinster coach compares last season’s double-winning achievements to scaling Mount Everest, descending back to the bottom and then trying to scale it again.  

James Tracy Tracy in training at Donnybrook earlier this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Nobody inside the four walls of the province’s high performance base is under any illusions of the size of the task ahead, as they begin to map out their route back to the summit and the dizzy heights of last year.

As many of their frontline internationals make their return along staggered timelines, the onus falls on a core group of the squad to do the early legwork and reach the first basecamp without any amount of tribulation.

An opening night assignment under the lights in Cardiff is a tough start and will require a big performance, but there should be no shortage of motivation within the Leinster dressing room as this a window of opportunity several in blue can’t afford to turn down.

James Tracy knows that, and is honest enough to admit it.

With Sean Cronin a couple of weeks away from a return following Ireland’s summer tour, Tracy recognises the opportunity in front of him and realises that if he is to force his way back into Joe Schmidt’s plans, he must simply take it with both hands.

Even allowing for the satisfaction of featuring off the bench in both the Champions Cup and Pro14 finals, the 27-year-old could not hide his disappointment at being left at home in June, before watching Niall Scannell and Rob Herring do themselves no harm in the selection stakes in the absence of the injured Rory Best.

“I had to be brutally honest with myself, and I wasn’t playing well enough to be there,” he says. “They [Scannell and Herring] fully deserved to be there. I’m old enough and bold enough now to know that you have to be playing at the top of your game to be putting on an Irish jersey and at that point I wasn’t.

“Hopefully I can get to a level again where I’m worthy of being selected.”

Tracy has been there, and experienced it all to know he wants more. A debut against Canada at the Aviva Stadium in November 2016 was reward for the hard work, patience and perseverance along the way, and five more caps followed, including a Six Nations appearance in Rome.

But that form tailed off last season despite featuring 24 times for Leinster throughout the campaign, 10 of which were starts including the Champions Cup win over Montpellier and five of the six regular-season inter-pro clashes. 

By his own admission, Tracy lacked the consistency of performance to add enough weight to his selection claims, and with Cronin enjoying a resurgence of his own, fell down the fiercely competitive international pecking order.  

James Tracy The hooker speaking to media at UCD. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Now, with a full pre-season in the bank and the potential of a run of games on the horizon, the Kildare native is targeting a fast start to the new season to really put pressure on Cronin for Leinster’s number two jersey.

“It is one of the advantages of not being on tour,” he continues. “Obviously everyone wants to be on tour and it’s very disappointing not to be on tour, but one of the advantages is that you’re the first in the shop window and you get a few games before anyone else does.

“I would have targeted it [to become first-choice at Leinster] over the last few years but hopefully this year I can improve my game and be worthy of taking that jersey.

“If you stand still, you get left behind so I wanted to be fitter, faster and stronger and getting that extra few weeks in pre-season hopefully means it’s given me a head start on everyone else.”

While Ireland’s hooker stocks look particularly well-resourced at present, the competition at Leinster is enough to be worrying Tracy for the time being, with Bryan Byrne pushing hard for more game-time and Ronan Kelleher a highly-rated academy prospect.

“There were five hookers training during the summer so I’ve plenty to be looking out for here,” he laughs. “At all times there seems to be a lot of hookers, it’s always very competitive and I’ll be constantly on my toes.

“That’s how it is in here, one bad game and I’m afraid there’s three people who’ll step in for you and that’s not just lip service, you can see every week how much the team changes so there’s a lot of pressure to perform and that’s what drives the standard.”

In that sense, Tracy gets the first chance to put down an early marker against the Cardiff Blues tonight [KO 7.35pm, TG4, eir Sport] in a strong and versatile Leinster team despite the unavailability of their key protagonists.

Tracy is one of seven Ireland internationals in the starting XV named by Leo Cullen, while the visitors have strength on the bench in the form of Andrew Porter, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park and Fergus McFadden for the meeting of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup winners.

“A fast start is what we’re all trying to do and that’s my mindset,” Tracy adds. “Put my foot down and get my name out there and hopefully I can perform and play well and put myself in the shop window for the coming weeks and months.”

For now, however, the focus has narrowed to Friday night.

Leinster's Joe Tomane Joe Tomane will make his Leinster debut tonight. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Sloppy performances in defeats to Ospreys, Benetton and Connacht during the tail-end of last season mattered little in the grand scheme of things, but it is now the responsibility of this group of players to meet the lofty Leinster standards and hit the ground running from the off.

Furthermore, Leinster were winless in their last four away Pro14 games of last term, a run which stretched back to their St Stephen’s Day victory at Thomond Park, and the Blues will be looking to take advantage of any early rustiness to extend their own winning streak over Irish provinces to four.

Cardiff, who lifted the Challenge Cup in Bilbao in May, come into the season buoyed by the arrival of Australian John Mulvihill and several exciting new additions, including lock Rory Thornton, wing Jason Harries and tighthead prop Dmitri Arhip who all make their debuts for the Welsh region.

Openside Ellis Jenkins leads the hosts in his new role as club captain in front of what promises to be a raucous home crowd, as the Blues look to record their first win over Leinster since 2011. 

“It is a great way for us to kick-off the season — the European Challenge Cup champions against the Pro14 and Champions Cup winners,” said Mulvihill.

“You have to play the best and it will be a massive challenge but if you saw the way these boys finished last season, they love a challenge and that will certainly be coming at us on Friday night.” 

The talking is over, let the games begin.  

Cardiff Blues:

15. Matthew Morgan
14. Jason Harries
13. Willis Halaholo
12. Rey Lee-Lo
11. Owen Lane
10. Jarrod Evans
9. Lloyd Williams

1. Brad Thyer
2. Kristian Dacey
3. Dmitri Arhip
4. Seb Davies
5. Rory Thornton
6. Josh Turnbull
7. Ellis Jenkins (captain)
8. Nick Williams

Replacements:

16. Rhys Gill
17. Ethan Lewis
18. Scott Andrews
19. George Earle
20. Olly Robinson
21. Tomos Williams
22. Steve Shingler
23. Garyn Smith

Leinster:

15. Dave Kearney
14. Adam Byrne
13. Rory O’Loughlin
12. Joe Tomane
11. Barry Daly
10. Ross Byrne
9. Luke McGrath

1. Peter Dooley
2. James Tracy
3. Michael Bent
4. Ross Molony
5. Scott Fardy
6. Josh Murphy
7. Rhys Ruddock (captain)
8. Caelan Doris

Replacements:

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Mick Kearney
20. Max Deegan
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Noel Reid
23. Fergus McFadden

Referee: Nigel Owens [WRU].

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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