McLaughlin looking to lay down early tempo

 

IRELAND v ITALY:PRIOR TO an interview last October Kevin McLaughlin would have been regarded as a man of mystery outside the confines of the Leinster set-up and perhaps some of their more hardcore supporters. A succession of excellent performances produced a clamour to unravel the secrets behind the province’s new powerhouse in the number six jersey.

The public was appraised of the fact he sang in the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, a love of music having been nurtured at Gonzaga College, and that he represented Ireland at various underage levels.

Supporters were informed he considered a life outside rugby in banking because his body had betrayed his ambition to be a professional sportsman, relentlessly breaking down. They were reminded that even when injuries didn’t intervene, the door to the first team at Leinster was locked and bolted, the Australian colossus Rocky Elsom having swallowed the only key.

In his own words and in chronicling that catalogue of misfortune, McLaughlin welded his past misfortune to present day celebration. On Saturday he’ll make his debut for Ireland against Italy at Croke Park. It’s instructive to note the obstacles he’s negotiated on the foothills to understand his satisfaction at clambering to the summit and a desire to linger there and enjoy the view. He recalled: “In my first year in the Academy I tore my cruciate (knee) ligament and was out for six months.

“Then the next year I had to get a shoulder reconstruction; (I) played half a season that year. The year after my right shoulder started acting up, the A/C joint, so that required more surgery. Last season I was looking at careers outside of rugby. I definitely had second thoughts. I was half thinking to myself: was I up to it physically? Was I ever going to make breakthrough?

“You get to the age of 24, 25 and it’s time to start playing games. So I definitely had doubts but obviously I’m delighted I stuck with it now . . . The coaching staff at Leinster was good to me; they’ve shown faith in me. I played okay in September, but even the coaches recognised I could get better so they kept on playing me week-in, week-out. Luckily enough I repaid them by improving my game.”

That perception was shared by national coach Declan Kidney who, although resisting the temptation to play the 25-year-old flanker in the November Tests so as not to appreciably steepen the gradient inopportunely, knew of the player’s quality. On the evidence of his form this season a pretty big bushel would be required to hide McLaughlin’s light. Two of his Leinster team-mates, Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip, are more than happy to verbally rubberstamp his promotion to national colours.

O’Driscoll explained: “There’s a great consistency to his game. He’s been a big impact player for us, he’s carried well and has a great work-rate: all the simple things you ask for your six. People were waxing lyrical about Rocky (Elsom) last year, and he was great for us. But the thing was: ‘how are we going to replace that?’ And yer man (turning to McLaughlin) has done a fairly good job of that, it’s been fairly seamless. I’m just excited for him. I’d just tell him to enjoy the occasion. He seems to have it cracked, with not worrying about the occasion much.”

Heaslip is even better placed to assess Saturday’s debutant as the pair operate cheek by jowl in Leinster’s backrow. “His attributes are probably his work-rate, he will carry the ball up hard and he is some tackler; he puts in massive hits. You know you have someone there who you can share the work with. He really gets around the park too. He’s pretty laid back. He does talk, not too much, just says what he has to say. He does his talking on the pitch and leads by example. He sings when he wants though,” laughed Heaslip.

McLaughlin has always possessed a great deal of talent. It’s just it has taken him slightly longer to get the platform to showcase it. He’ll relish the raw physicality of the Italian challenge.

“Well the six’s job, in some way, is to be the hammer man of the team; make sure that you lay down the tempo early on and get big hits in,” he says. “We know the way Italy play. They get a lot of close-in runners and try to take you on up front, get over the gain-line. We’re going to be quite conscious of that. I definitely recognise my role – getting in there, stuck in early on and being physical. I’m up for the physical challenge of a strong team.”

He has been all season.