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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 15 October, 2019
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Luke McGrath fitness a key to Leinster's Lowe threat

The Kiwi has been exceptional value since arriving from Waikato this season, but Leinster could have to choose between him and Scott Fardy if McGrath’s injury persists.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

MORE OFTEN THAN not it’s his illustrious half-back partner whose fitness is under close scrutiny, but scrum-half Luke McGrath’s presence, or otherwise, brings an impact for the wider Leinster team-sheet.

In European competition, teams must select their team with consideration for the EPCR’s rule 3.7 which limits teams to two ‘non-European’ players. The Cotonou Agreement has created many large loopholes for players from African, South American and Pacific island states, but Australia and New Zealand continue to get snagged by the rule.

In practice, this has meant that Leo Cullen has had to choose between scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park, second row Scott Fardy and wing James Lowe in his teams for big European matches. And because Gibson-Park has spent the majority of his time in Leinster as a back-up to McGrath, he has most commonly been the man to miss out on big-match minutes as a result.

So, after the Ireland number nine picked up an ankle knock in the win over Saracens, the sight of him walking in a protective boot last week was a cause for concern with the Scarlets semi-final coming fast down the tracks.

The boot is off now and the 25-year-old will return to training this week. But he will not be risked in Saturday’s Pro14 visit of Benetton to the RDS.

“He’s walking around looking to up his rehab,” backs coach Girvan Dempsey said yesterday.

“With some guys it’s just more prudent in how you look at your picture in terms of their selection. You just got to make sure your players are hitting their makers, making sure you are not compromising their return and impacting on the end of the season. that’s a case for Luke. We are looking at the bigger picture, longer term rather than: ‘there’s a game here.’”

If McGrath were to miss out on the Champions Cup semi-final, then a promotion into the matchday squad for Gibson-Park would mean either the street-wise hard edge of Fardy would be lost from the pack, or the cutting edge of Lowe would be shelved for the back-line.

Neither outcome is a favourable one for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster. And for a packed crowd in the Aviva Stadium, Lowe’s inimitable energy and flair would be sorely missed.

James Lowe Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I sort of met him when I was down (in New Zealand) and I saw that he was a character, but I really didn’t think he was as much of a character as he was,” offered Dempsey with a smile.

“His energy is incredible, he celebrates everything. He loves the game, he has a great outlook on life and he just celebrates little victories; a big defence by somebody, somebody scoring a try…

“He’d celebrate Garry’s try the same as somebody putting in a big tackle or the forwards getting a scrum penalty. He brings great energy.”

The one questionable aspect to Lowe’s Leinster stint so far has been his consistency in defence. Having arrived in Dublin with the season already in full swing in November, it’s understandable that time was needed to snugly bed in to a new set of systems. And any teething problems have been well worth the pain for the attacking verve Lowe brings to a team who feel they are overdue a trophy.

“A winger’s eyes light up when they get that opportunity with a bit of space, one-on one. That’s what they get excited about and James is no different to any other winger in that he has that ability to beat guys one-on-one.

Physically, you see the size he has. His smarts around how he plays the game, he doesn’t die with the ball – he’s always exploring every opportunity to keep the ball alive, keep momentum in the attack.

“We’ve used him in varying ways in our attack and I think he’s grown massively in terms of his defence as well.

“He’s learnt a huge amount since he’s been here, he’s added a huge amount to the squad.”

It would be a shame to lose that for a season-defining match in the Aviva. Particularly if it also signals the absence of McGrath, who has quietly installed himself as a key man in Leinster’s team with tries on top of terrific distribution.

“He’s growing and maturing nicely in terms of big games,” says Dempsey.

Luke McGrath Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“You can see he’s got the right temperament. He’s shown that through captaincy through schools, age-grade right up to us at senior level. He’s one of the leaders that we look to as well.”

“I think Luke has had a superb season. You look at him and see how he has progressed his game.

“What I remember seeing in him as a young kid in St Michael’s is that he just had an abundance of energy — involved in everything — it was trying to curb him in his understanding of his role as a nine. He was nearly playing as a seven because he was in nearly every breakdown. He was getting poaches.

“It was tough because it was impacting on how the back three worked and how his defence happened. He was stuck in breakdown and we wanted him to play quick.

“It was an education for him as a young kid coming out of school to where he is now. I think you have seen that this year in particular. I think his kicking game has really improved. His passing game has improved definitely. It’s just his sharpness, that real zip with his strength. When he is on the ball and the speed at which he can clear (from the base of the ruck) allows us to play quick.”

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Sean Farrell

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