Jack McGrath finding his form again after late pre-season return
Dedicated loosehead prop may get to reprise captaincy role for Leinster this weekend
Jack McGrath leading his team out as Leinster captain against Munster: 'It was a massive honour and a bit of a surprise to be honest.' Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The GPS unit is rugby’s all-seeing eye, there’s no escaping or disputing the numbers as it monitors the physical output of players in training and matches. The data is analysed and workloads and game time increase or decrease depending on the data.
Jack McGrath’s exertions with the Lions in New Zealand during the summer meant that along with the rest of the Irish contingent he came back a little later for his pre-season and in his absence Cian Healy reclaimed the number one jersey for both Leinster and Ireland. McGrath has played nine matches in blue with six starts so far this season and just one in the November Test series, against Fiji.
A dip in form possibly attributable in the main to less game time meant that the loosehead prop had to recalibrate his focus on and off the pitch, particularly in relation to his fitness, something which he has addressed. Mental fatigue can also be a factor. “I probably came back in a little later. Like anyone, you need game time to get fitness up. I was just a little bit under-cooked. It happens. I’m not dwelling on it.
“I’ve been trucking away, trying to do a few extras, trying to get as much down when I come on in a game, try to impress. It has all been positive. It is just there are always work-ons. At this level, if you are a little bit behind the pace, you stand out in a negative sense. For me, it is staying on top of fitness,” he says.
“It was just a few different things came together. I probably didn’t have enough game time, probably wasn’t doing enough [extra sessions] when that happened. When I came into November, I was probably a little under-cooked and selection didn’t go my way. I parked that and I have a regime now that I find is working for me in getting back to the best of my ability.”
‘Need to truck’
Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty explained when discussing McGrath’s situation: “The big rigs, the front five players, they need to truck. You see it across the provinces, where all those big lads need to be playing games and they need to be playing as regularly as they possibly can.
“Now, you overplay them and they’ll burn out, but he [McGrath] probably came back a little bit, not exactly where he should have been at the start of the season, which led to maybe a slower start than normal for Jack.
“And then mentally, we’ve talked about it before where he’s been up for season upon season and summer tours, Lions tours, I think he had a mental drop-off as well. Sometimes that happens. How he reacted to it has been really impressive. He made himself a really good plan with the guys in here, physically what he needed to do, and he’s put himself now in a good position.”
Fogarty spoke about how any tiny drop-off, physically or mentally given the depth of quality in props both from a provincial and national perspective, can see a player lose his place. He cited Sean Cronin, Leinster’s man of the match in the win over Connacht, as another player who has worked really hard on certain aspects of his game after losing his place in the pecking order during November in terms of the Ireland squad.
McGrath’s attitude and diligence was rewarded when he was handed the Leinster captaincy for the first time in the victory over Munster at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day. He was forced off at half-time after receiving a blow on the head but has passed all the return-to-play protocols and will return for Saturday’s game against Ulster at the RDS (5.35pm).
He had previously captained his school and Leinster A, advocating a simple philosophy, “play the game you enjoy. It was a massive honour and a bit of a surprise to be honest. I was delighted and no better game to do it in because that can be a tricky fixture as well.
“There was a lot of talk around selection and all that sort of stuff so we just knew ourselves if we went down and played our game we could get a result. Thankfully that’s what happened. It was great and they’re an easy bunch to lead when it is like that, although saying that, it is only once. It was enjoyable, I liked it.” He may get to reprise the role at the weekend.
His attitude is not to dwell on the negatives. He has addressed them and is in a better position to properly represent his quality as a player. Nor is he going to model his game on anyone else’s. “I try and play my own game and play to my strengths. I’ll try not to try too hard because if you try too hard you’re going to make mistakes. For me, consistency is a huge thing.”