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Leinster's McGrath eager to stake his claim against Italy after missing Six Nations

The scrum-half hopes to start Saturday’s warm-up game at the Aviva Stadium.

IT WOULD BE understandable if Luke McGrath approached these next six weeks with his sense of opportunity tempered by an element of apprehension, given the scrum-half’s luck — or lack thereof — with injuries in recent years.

McGrath has suffered his fair share of setbacks over the last two seasons, his consistently excellent form for Leinster stymied by frustrating lay-offs at the most inopportune times. 

Luke McGrath McGrath at Carton House today. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Take last season, for example, when he suffered knee ligament damage just before the Six Nations and missed the entire championship, while similarly cruel misfortune befell him in 2018, when knee and ankle problems meant he sat out the Grand Slam win and then the summer tour to Australia.

The 26-year-old returned to Joe Schmidt’s squad to feature in all four games last November, including a cameo role off the bench against the All Blacks, but it is just under a year since he last pulled on a green jersey, for his 10th international cap.

McGrath, having overcome his latest knee injury, finished the season strongly with Leinster as Leo Cullen’s side claimed back-to-back Pro14 titles, but the former St Michael’s man has yet to truly establish himself on the international stage.

Of course, Kieran Marmion has been a consistent understudy to Conor Murray in recent years, while John Cooney’s form at Ulster has earned him opportunities in the nine jersey, making the position as competitive as ever.

And with the race to Japan hotting up ahead of Ireland’s first World Cup warm-up game, McGrath knows that now is the time to stake his claim in the jersey, should he get the first opportunity at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday. 

“I’ve just got to put my hand up,” he says, when asked what he feels he needs to do this weekend.  

I suppose in attack, keep the game flowing, keep pace on the ball. In defence, just slot into the line when I need to, play a good kicking game, not just be solid but you’ve got to show what you can do.

“Show you’re versatile if you’re in different positions, different scenarios, just keep a calm head. It is our first game of the season as well, so there will be mistakes. It’s important, that a collective, we just stick to the game plan and hopefully, that will be good enough.”

Although it is the first of four warm-up outings before Japan, McGrath knows the significance of these pre-tournament fixtures, particularly for those players threading a fine selection line. 

“Yeah, you do put pressure on yourself,” he admits. “You set yourself little goals going into the game. It’s just depending on how you perform to that. It’s a huge opportunity but it’s also the first game of the season so you have to be patient as well and we’ve spoken about that as a team.

Luke McGrath The Leinster nine in training earlier. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It was obviously very disappointing to miss the Six Nations and it would be a great opportunity if I get selected to play this weekend. I speak on behalf of the whole squad, everyone wants to play in the first game.”

Saturday’s team selection will provide the first insight into Schmidt’s thinking, with the scrum-half battle one of the most fascinating. 

Four years ago, the Ireland head coach brought two scrum-halves and had Ian Madigan as a third option, but this time around Schmidt may bring three out-and-out nines to Japan. 

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Murray, fitness permitting, is guaranteed to be on the plane, Marmion is a tried and trusted player under Schmidt and Ulster’s Cooney brings another level of versatility to the position given his place-kicking strengths. 

This block will be crucial and with a window to take a closer look at each of Marmion, Cooney and McGrath in starting roles, the four games are likely to help management make their final decision at the start of next month. 

“These upcoming games are opportunities for us all,” McGrath adds. “It’s a time for all of us to put our hand up and see how we go. It was tough for the two lads [released last week] but it’s going to be tough for more lads throughout the next few weeks. Yeah, it’s just important to put your hand up when you can.

“It’s a Test match so everyone will be going in 100%. Obviously, injuries do happen and we were talking about it there, only 31 can go but there will be people that will be flown out throughout the campaign as well so everyone has to be ready.

“It’s great to be in a game week now and all the lads are looking forward to it.”

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Ryan Bailey

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