Leinster’s Jack McGrath maintaining power surge through the ranks
With the province facing a period of transition, the loosehead is a shining example of the value of the academy
Leinster loosehead Jack McGrath drives forward during their Heineken Cup clash against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton last month. The St Mary’s player has started two cup games this season so far. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
These are trying times for Leinster. Their chief playmaker, Johnny Sexton, and their stellar overseas signing, Isa Nacewa, having moved on at the end of last season, their talismanic leadership figures, Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen, are set to follow suit at the end of this season.
Were Jamie Heaslip and/or Seán O’Brien to follow, they’ll have lost virtually the spine of the side along with much of the captains and lieutenants, which helped them to four European trophies in five seasons. Not since the advent of the professional era would the province have been gutted as severely as this.
Furthermore, they are not buying in such stellar overseas’ signings as they used to, a reflection on the increased financial muscle of French clubs backed by both benefactors and increasing television revenue.
Leinster’s inevitable period of transition could thus be accentuated more than they would have bargained for. Suffice to say that the strain on the conveyor belt of talent coming through their academy/under-age structure will be more demanding than ever.
Jack McGrath is a shining example of this conveyor belt. His steady emergence through each step of the Leinster and Irish pathway into an international loosehead has given Leinster invaluable back-up to Cian Healy and meant they could afford to release Heinke van der Merwe without recourse to another import. Now 24, he is being thrust into the front line, a la Jordi Murphy, and will be even more so given the continuing turnover in personnel.
“I suppose every team has to go through it as well, don’t they?” he reasons matter-of-factly. As to the notion he and a newer generation are going to have to drive the Leinster machine onwards, he adds: “Yeah, but that’s also exciting. It’s not really a pressure. I think the more experience we get at this level it also brings more confidence and I think the lads, including myself, are looking forward to taking over the mantle from the older guys that are leaving.”
Currently moving home into his first house near his club St Mary’s, a five-minute drive from the family home in Terenure, McGrath found time in a hectic week – Wednesday’s day off allowing him to clear out his shed – to reflect on his career thus far. First lured up to the club as a 10-year-old by his rugby-playing mates, McGrath is something of a bonus for Leinster and Irish rugby given there is no rugby in his family bloodline, save for a cousin, Brian Doyle, who plays with Clondalkin.
“It was actually funny. We had moved house and I was hanging around with these lads in the estate. They were two or three years older than me and said: ‘do you want to come up and start playing. It’s something we do every weekend.’ I went up but I was a bit pissed off I couldn’t play with them but I ended up playing under-10s. I didn’t know any of the rules. I was just trying to run into lads but I wouldn’t have understood why you have to pass it backwards,” he admits. Not that you seemingly have to any more.
“No one else in my family played rugby. They would have been all labourers. My dad (Stephen) is a truck driver and my uncle (Kieran) is a builder,” adds McGrath. “I never really looked ahead and began thinking ‘oh, I’d love to play for Leinster’ or stuff like that, even in school. Things just started happening from there. When I got into the sub-academy and the full academy it started to change. Until then it was never really something I thought of.”
He attributes his natural strength to the labouring bloodline. “My grandad would be a big strong man and my mum’s father would be a big man as well.” So prop was his natural port of call. “I don’t think you could put me anywhere else unfortunately,” he says, chuckling. “I’m not fast enough or smart enough to play anywhere else.”
In addition to his sister Julieanne, McGrath had one older brother, Stephen, who passed away “a couple of years ago” when in his 30s. You feel bad for prying but he freely states: “It’s something good to think about when you’re playing. It puts things in perspective massively.”
McGrath played one year on the St Mary’s schools Junior Cup team but then three seasons on the Senior Cup team, losing the final to Belvedere in his final year. One-time Leinster hooker Tom Sexton, currently in Australia, was one of many friends he retains from those days.
On foot of that, McGrath broke into the Leinster Under-18 schools team, and in turn the under-19s, 20s, and Irish under-20s, while also being given a one-year sub-academy contract. That, he admits, was the making of him. “It was five days a week; in at 7am to do weights. If you’re short on numbers you’d be in with the seniors. If not you’d do a skills session which, when I was there was with Richie Murphy and Colin McEntee. Passing, rucking, tackling drills, and lineouts, and position specific stuff.
“Unfortunately for some people who get dragged straight from school into the academy it can be their downfall at times. There are exceptions of course but I think the sub-academy can be a great help to guys. It can help young players learn their way. Dave Fagan (the academy fitness coach) respects hard work and some lads who come straight into the full academy think they’ve made it. If you have to slog it out in the sub-academy against three or four guys in your position you do really have to fight for your place.”
Regarding McEntee and Murphy, McGrath simply says: “They brought me to where I am today. They gave me the right tools to work with, and told me when I was doing things right or wrong, particularly in those skills’ sessions, the small details that have helped lads all the way through.”
He regrets not going to college at the same time, and in the last few years has been gaining work experience in cooking – with Kylemore Kitchens and the Google offices last year – but at the time he felt he had to give his all when the sub-academy and academy provided him with a window of opportunity in rugby. The full academy train with the seniors, a system introduced by Michael Cheika and eagerly-maintained by Joe Schmidt and Matt O’Connor
“I don’t think anyone is bigger than the team,” says McGrath. “The mantra in the club now is being humble and no one is bigger than the team. You can approach anyone, it doesn’t matter if it’s Brian O’Driscoll, Leo Cullen or anyone. Any young player can come and ask a senior player a question, and no one is going to be ignorant towards you. It’s a very friendly environment, but when it has to be turned on, it is turned on.”
The following season, 2009-10, he was promoted to the full academy, and given a development contract the following season – which he likens to a trial year. “If they’re happy with you they’ll keep you on, and if they’re not, they won’t. It’s that ruthless.”
Critically too for a young prop, by his own admission, he was playing Ulster Bank League rugby with St Mary’s, while also accumulating 21 Leinster A games, including captaincy of their British & Irish Cup team. With each season came more game time, seven games in 2010-’11 (all but one off the bench), three starts and 10 sub appearances in 2011-’12, 18 games last season (eight starts) and this season there have been four Heineken Cup games – two starting – amongst his 13 appearances. “I’d be pissed off with myself if I became stagnant or happy with where I was. I like to push on.”
Currently he is in the first season of his second two-year professional contract, breaking into the Irish team for a full debut in the win over Samoa and replacement cameos against Australia and New Zealand. “It was always in the back of my mind. In an interview at the start of the season I said I’d like to win my first cap this season, so it was definitely in my mind to do that.”
With all his family and mates in the Aviva, it was unquestionably the best day of his career, and in particular he recalls standing for the national anthems. “It was a very emotional time. A lot of thoughts went through your head. It was something I’d been wishing for a long time, and wondered whether it would come. It’ll definitely be a day I won’t forget.”
Pity the way the month ended, with the All Blacks’ overtime try after Nigel Owens’ harsh penalty against McGrath for going off his feet, although Ireland were still only one defensive play away from history. “I’ll never forget that either. That’s a nightmare. We’ve discussed that in camp and yeah, it was probably the worst moment in my career. But they’re the things you learn from, and hopefully I’ll get another crack at it and not make the same mistake twice.”
More pressing matters lie in wait over the next two weekends, with two wins required for McGrath and co to continue maintaining Leinster’s high standards in Europe.
The defeat to Northampton has given them little wriggle room but McGrath says there has been a palpable edge in training this week, in part thanks to those not involved in the match-day squad.
“We know Castres away is very tough. Their record at home is very good. They’ve a strong side with a really good pack. We’ve really been concentrating on nullifying their scrum and lineout maul, and it’s the biggest two weeks of the season so far but as a squad we’re not looking past this week. We do realise the size of the job, but everyone is relishing the opportunity.”