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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 13 December, 2018

'This is Jamison’s time': Lancaster ready to trust in JGP with McGrath running out of time

Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster could have to choose between the scrum-half and star wing James Lowe for the Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets.

THERE IS STILL time, but the early signs have not been pointing in the right direction for Luke McGrath.

The scrum-half has been struggling with an ankle injury since the Champions Cup quarter-final win over Saracens and the medical update from Leinster yesterday signaled further assessment rather than an imminent return to full training.

Luke McGrath Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With the Champions Cup semi-final against Scarlets now within five days, it appears as though Leinster will have to dispense with star wing James Lowe (though Scott Fardy is also a possibility) in order to include scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park as one of two permitted non-European players.

Speaking yesterday, senior coach Stuart Lancaster paired McGrath with Sean O’Brien in a category of hopefuls, adding that the scrum-half is: “on an upward curve but, again, the clock is ticking on that one.”

The prospect of going into face the Pro12 champions, who tasted victory in Dublin twice in the business end of last season, without at least two of the first-choice back-line must be a cause of concern, particularly when Gibson-Park has struggled to make a solid impression in his time with Leinster. Lancaster, however, is confident that his side will adapt to the attacking tweaks the former Auckland Blue and Wellington Hurricane will bring.

Jamison Gibson-Park Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Luke’s a good player, but Jamison has been here for a year-and-a-half now.

He’s played in big games in Super Rugby, he’s played in big games for us and if Luke’s not available then this is Jamison’s time, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s ready to play to play at this level.

“He’s got the ability to play at this level and this will be his first real opportunity to demonstrate that he can do that. I’m pleased personally that he actually did play at the weekend (in the loss to Benetton) and he had the extended game-time.

“I’d be more concerned if he was coming in having only benched and come on for 10 minutes. When he was in Super Rugby he didn’t really get a lot of game-time and I think he’s had a significant amount of game-time here over the last 18 months, and now is his time.”

The alternative to going into the Champions Cup semi-final without one of last year’s marquee signings would be to entrust Nick McCarthy with starter duties and bring Charlie Rock in among the replacements. However, as Lancaster alluded to, Leinster have invested a lot of time and planning in Gibson-Park. The Kiwi has played 55 minutes or more in 10 of his 19 appearances this season and it would be a severe indictment of his form to opt for the third-choice 9 in this situation.

Robbie Henshaw Robbie Henshaw and Nick McCarthy training in Donnybrook yesterday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Though the knock-on effects of the scrum-half dilemma are obvious, Lancaster reels off the back-line (excluding McGrath) that faced Exeter Chiefs in December as proof that there is plenty to be confident about even if Lowe must be passed over on this occasion.

Leinster defeated the English champions back-to-back with jerseys 10-15 occupied by Sexton, Nacewa, Henshaw, Ringrose, McFadden and Kearney. And that combination is possible again thanks to Robbie Henshaw’s recovery from the shoulder issue sustained in the act of scoring for Ireland against Italy.

Unfortunately for Sean O’Brien, his shoulder has not enjoyed as swift a recovery as the centre’s. The Lion suffered a second failed return from the problem last Saturday and looks to be among Leinster’s list of unavailable back row talent.

Making his way off that list this week is Jack Conan, who will hope to put pressure on the Fardy-Jordi Murphy-Dan Leavy combination, or at least take a place among the replacements.

Conan started last year’s Pro12 semi-final defeat at home to Scarlets, a 27-15 humbling at the hands of 14 men that has continued to resonate and rankle in the eastern province.

“I think we overlooked it almost in some regards,” is the view of Dan Leavy, “we didn’t bring our A game to that semi-final and we paid.”

Lancaster also bemoaned the performance before this campaign began, signalling that Leinster would not be caught waiting on openings to happen for them when it came to crunch time this season.

The former England coach is confident that his team is better 12 months on, with the experience of suffering through last year’s semi-final defeats the key point of difference.

Dan Leavy, Stuart Lancaster, Rob Kearney and Jordi Murphy Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

On the flip-side of that, however, is that Scarlets have sampled the feeling of raising silverware and have wholly proven their credentials in Europe this season.

“I think people underestimate the quality of their defence,” says Lancaster, “I think people don’t really understand their defensive system and their defensive philosophy.

“Obviously, they are not dissimilar to Saracens in terms of their line-speed, but they will contest hard at the breakdown and they will trust (Leigh) Halfpenny in the backfield and so as a consequence it makes them hard to break down by playing multi-phase rugby all the time.

“Stephen Jones has created a very, very effective counter-attack policy that allows them to exploit space on turnover. So when they don’t have the ball, they try to turn it over and exploit the space, and they play good attacking rugby.

So again, you can’t do what they achieved last year — beating us, beating Munster (and) doing what they did in the pool against Toulon and everyone along the way — without being a top quality team.

“They are, without doubt, the toughest opponents we will have faced so far in Europe.”

It would be a shame, then, to not have all hands on deck.

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Sean Farrell

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