Late call-up in great shape to move up another level


INTERVIEW KEVIN McLAUGHLIN:NOTHING EVER seems to come easily for Kevin McLaughlin, but he has a tendency to reach his goals. Even after enjoying his best season ever he missed out on the original 30-man squad for this tour, before being added a week later as a late replacement for Stephen Ferris. Nonetheless, he made it to the bench last week for his third cap and this Saturday makes just his second start, two-and-a-half years after his debut against Italy at Croke Park, against the world champions.

The day after starting and starring in Leinster’s Heineken Cup final win over Ulster at Twickenham, his celebrations were diluted by a phone call from Declan Kidney. “I was pretty gutted, but then I kind of just got on with it. We had to prepare for another (PRO 12) final with Leinster. I was still always a bit disappointed but then I knew from chatting to a few different people that Fez was struggling and I knew Seanie (O’Brien) was struggling because he had had that (knee) surgery, so I hadn’t completely given up hope.”

Nor was he in holiday mode as, encouragingly, Kidney had told him not to book anything. The Friday before the final he was phoned to be informed he’d made the tour party. “Everybody wants to tour with Ireland but this one, having missed the last one, was a real target of mine. So I was on a real low when I found out I wasn’t going and then on a real high. I was elated.”

Shattered from that tough final and its anti-climactic defeat, he packed that night and refocused for the flight to Gloucester the next day en route to New Zealand. Ask him what his target was coming out here and he says immediately: “To pick up three more caps. I thought there was a good chance I mightn’t start the first one,” he admits, “because I hadn’t been involved in the Six Nations and also a couple of the backrowers had a headstart.

“So I was saying to myself ‘even if I don’t start in the first Test get at least one start. I’ve achieved that goal so I’m absolutely delighted about it, and it’s a huge show of faith by Deccie in me. He’s obviously feels I’ve been playing well with Leinster and given me a chance to prove I can do it in green. I know it’s going to be a massive step-up in intensity and the quality of players I’m playing against but it’s very exciting. You want to test yourself as a professional and this is going to be the ultimate test.”

Looking at the review of last week’s game he is adamant, despite the considered view that the All Blacks invariably improve from game to game, the same applies to Ireland given they have so many areas to improve.

“Last week was a massive kick up the a**e and a massive wake-up call for us. You can’t play at the level we played at last week and stay in touch; make the mistakes we made in defence, be so lax in our lineout defence – basic kind of things. You’ve got to ramp everything up a level.”

McLaughlin believes experiencing the pace and intensity of last week’s game will stand to those who played last Saturday, though he admits by the time he was introduced in the 63rd minute, the All Blacks were out of sight at 35-10, by which time the subs were coming and going, the rain had arrived and the game had become more set-piece orientated and stop-start, so, McLaughlin found it hard to get into it.

He enjoyed the experience of facing the haka and the All Blacks but says “I feel I’ve got the dream out of my head and it’s a case of just playing them and beating them.”

The consistently high intensity he has brought to all of his performances, particularly toward the latter part of the campaign, has been striking. McLaughlin is a late developing player whose form has gone up another notch this season, thanks to an invaluable lesson last season. “I decided when I was coming back from my injury I wanted to be heavier and a collision winner and I stacked on the weight. I came back and I was 113kg and I was going well enough in games, but I felt I was flagging in games. I decided that’s not the game that suits me. The kind of game that suits me is repeat efforts and getting through loads of work; lineouts, getting around the park, carrying the ball hard and repeat efforts.”

This season he has been playing at 107/108kg. “ I’m in much better shape, my body fat is down, I’m looking after my diet a lot better, I’m feeling much fitter. I realise what my fighting weight is.”

McLaughlin had every motivation going into the Heineken Cup final. A year before he had been part of the epic win over Northampton but, though it was the biggest win of his career, it rankled a tad on a personal level he had been replaced at half-time, with Leinster trailing 22-6 before recovering to win 33-22. He was damned if that was going to happen to him again.

“There was a little bit of a memory there. I actually felt in that Northampton game while I did maybe make a mistake or two I felt I played quite well. It was just the team needed a change. But the two halves couldn’t have been any different, and I played in the wrong half. So this year I was determined to make sure I stayed on the pitch as long as possible. I got a bit longer (62 minutes) and I enjoyed myself.”

McLaughlin arrives here, for the biggest game of his career, feeling fresh, in the form of his career. “Playing against a Southern Hemisphere team you’ve got to go up another level, but I feel I’m in the best position I’ve ever been in my career to go up another level.”