McGrath relishing competition with Healy for club and country

Most of the Irish squad that don’t travel to the US likely to start against Argentina

Conjoined at club and country, Jack McGrath and Cian Healy, two loosehead props, continue to vie for pre-eminence at Leinster and Ireland in overlapping career spans. It is an unusual occurrence in recent times that they will not be included as a pair in the Ireland matchday squad for Saturday's Test match against Italy at Soldier Field, Chicago (8pm, Irish time).

The last occasion was against Argentina in November last year when McGrath wasn't involved. Since then Healy started four of five matches – the Italy match was the exception – in the Grand Slam-winning Six Nations Championship campaign of last season, while Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt entrusted McGrath with the number one jersey in two of the three Tests in the 2-1 summer series win over the Wallabies in Australia.

As an offbeat aside about divvying up game time the two players also shared yellow cards in the second Test against Australia, Healy for bringing down a maul in the first half, and McGrath, who had replaced his provincial team-mate on 45 minutes, five minutes from the end when adjudged to have slapped the ball away from replacement Aussie scrumhalf Nick Phillips.

Healy is one of 16 players that will remain at Carton House, while McGrath will have Munster's Dave Kilcoyne for company in Chicago. An injury meant a delayed start to the season for McGrath at Leinster, and Healy consolidated his position as first choice from the double-winning team last season.



McGrath started for the province in the 31-3 victory over Benetton last weekend, and played 51 minutes, bringing his tally to 128 in the three games since returning from a knee injury.

He admitted: “It does keep focus. It’s peculiar, two top-quality looseheads fighting for the one position in the same club. You want to be starting but there is no doubt that Cian [Healy] is playing very good rugby, so it’s up to me to pry the jersey from him. But I’m a team man, and I’ll do whatever I need to do as part of that team to help them.”

The accepted wisdom is that the majority of the Irish squad members that don’t travel to the USA will be in the box seat to start the following weekend against Argentina. For McGrath the focus is on accumulating the sharpness that comes with game time. He appreciated the opportunity in Australia.

“It was great to get two starts over there. It [last season] was a difficult season. Obviously we won the trophies and everything like that, but you want to be starting a few more games. But that is the nature of the beast. I am competitive, Cian is competitive; I think we bring the best out in each other. It was a nice way to top off the end of the year and, yeah, to win down there is incredible for the first time in [39] years. It just topped off the year.”

McGrath accepted that his priority rests on performance rather than wondering what Schmidt in thinking. His focus is Italy, nothing more. He argues that Italian head coach Conor O’Shea has worked hard to increase the depth of quality in the squad, and that those results will become more evident in the short term.

Depth of players

“The way their clubs are going [in the Pro 14], the way they are being coached, they are getting the depth of players now that they needed whereas before they just had the guaranteed 15 players and you kind of knew that by the end of the Six Nations those guys had played a lot and they were just fatigued.

“So now they have guys that can step in at that level; they are much more dangerous than they have been in the past, but they are always a tough opposition [physically].”

Saturday marks the first of 13 test matches as Ireland build towards next year's World Cup in Japan. Every one represents an opportunity, and while some are more important than others in the greater scheme, what Schmidt will be demanding from those Irish players who wish to travel to the World Cup is consistent excellence in performance terms.

McGrath, if chosen to start on Saturday, gets the first crack and for now that is all he can control.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer