Jack McGrath: ‘I had this horrible knot in my stomach. Now it’s gone’

Ireland and Leinster prop forward has fought hard to overcome the loss of his brother

St Mary’s RFC. Blue jersey all alone on a peg. Burly prop pounds a tackle bag in slow motion. Something isn’t right. Glazed gaze, eyes closing: “When my brother died in 2010 it caused a lot of anger and anxiety. He would come to all my games. . .”

March 19th, 2016, the Aviva Stadium: Ireland against Scotland. Jack McGrath lines up behind the red carpet glancing off to his right, into the stand. He seems to well up but steels up instead. The moustache makes him look like Phil Orr. What's needed is a task only the hardest of men can perform.

He has that same moment before every game, a look into the faceless crowd, a gulp then exhale to alleviate invisible weight.

Until recently he would swallow and feel the knot in his stomach tighten. A tough man isn’t a silent man anymore. He who keeps it all inside is only torturing himself.


People don’t want to talk about suicide. They ask, “Are you okay?”, they hear “Yes” and move quickly on.

“I am okay now,” says McGrath. “It’s something that happened. It was tragic for our family but it made us tighter and we still talk about him all the time.

“Because he was such a fan of me playing rugby and the fact that rugby is my life now it’s hard not to think of him all the time. This process, the video, is another way of dealing with it which has been great.”

Rigid jaw line

Michael D walks the line, "Jack McGrath," says Rory Best. McGrath's rigid jaw line can only emit "Hey" and a handshake for the President.

Eyes close for the anthems and that silly Coulter jingle before the explosion of Test match rugby consumes all of our minds.

Cian Healy is down the other end with his buddy Jamie Heaslip. One seems unbreakable, the other never seems to fully mend. McGrath is 26 now and in the former category, hopefully never to enter the latter.

Sixty-eight minutes later, following nine carries for 18 attritional metres to go with eight jarring tackles and a bundle of scrums against South African tighthead WP Nel, McGrath calmly makes way for Healy (just after Alex Dunbar judo flips Johnny Sexton).

This is the current pecking order.

Who is Phil Orr? – 59 caps, from 59 starts, between 1976 and 1987 when rugby was a different game and such durability was possible. Two Orrs are needed nowadays.

There may be lessons from 28-year-old Healy's head start as the Leinster and Ireland loosehead. McGrath wasn't an Olympic power lifter at age 14. He wasn't exposed to the rigours of the professional game at age 20, and he hasn't been cursed by anything like the ankle, knee and neck surgeries, along with a hamstring tearing off the bone while trotting out to training last year.

Outwardly, McGrath was progressing along, in his dream job, without a care in the world.

Voice quivers momentarily but steels up: “He would come to all my games, even from under-10s. He always used to say to me ‘you would play for Ireland.’ It’s probably one main reason why I wanted to play for Ireland, when you hear that ringing in your ears every time you run out onto the pitch. I always felt keeping my emotions in was the way to deal with it. When you got this knot in your stomach you are struggling to get up in the morning. Eventually you start talking and it is nearly like a gas valve releasing.”

When did you first reach out for help?

“Five or six months ago. Just before the World Cup. I’ve probably got to know my mind a bit more from opening up as well. Most players know their body but it’s important to know your mind, and what kind of space you are in at that time.”

Sports Illustrated writer Alan Shipnuck has attempted to provide reasons for the collapse – mental and physical – of Tiger Woods ahead of this month's US Masters. McGrath seems to arrive at Tiger's core issue: "Probably all the really successful sports people in the world are comfortable in their own mental space. That's when you can perform the best."

This singular pursuit led him, through IRUPA, to the tackleyourfeelings.com campaign.

Macho sport

“The whole reason we are trying to push this campaign is, it is a stigma to talk about your feelings. It’s important to have the rugby guys pushing it as rugby is seen as a macho sport. Fellas don’t have feelings because they are bating the head off each other; but we are all humans, we all have feelings like that. It’s something that has to be addressed and the younger you catch it, the better.”

Such words put the rotten mess created in the aftermath of the Joe Marler and Samson Lee verbals, racist or not, into perspective. "I don't know if you ever had it but it's like this nervous, anxious knot, a horrible tight feeling in your stomach," McGrath explains.

“Trying to juggle the two [mental illness and a professional rugby career] can be difficult but, in a way, playing and preparing for a game almost distracts you from it. But you are distracted with a different stress.”

Mistakes, like the penalty McGrath coughed up, way out the field in fairness, which led to the All Blacks eventually running in that devastating try in November 2013 seemed like water off a young, healthy man’s back. But few knew his internal trauma. Most of his team-mates only discovered his family loss in January when he showed them the video.

“For me personally, it was very, very tough. Everyone was saying, it’s grand, it’s grand, but it was not grand. You know you messed up.”

It was his third cap. A year later McGrath made a mind-blowing 17 tackles as the Springboks were defeated and he has since started in all but four Ireland games.

National treasure

Healy was parachuted into the starting XV for the 2015 Six Nations decider at Murrayfield and, again, despite a rapid return from neck surgery, for the crucial World Cup matches against France and Argentina. But Healy hasn’t looked like the Cian Healy of old for at least a year now. He may or may not return to national treasure status but, either way, the loosehead stocks seem plentiful.

“Cian has proved that he is durable. It’s just that he has been unlucky. There is not a whole lot he could have done about it. He came out of school and was playing when he was 19, 20. If it had happened then, you could have said something, but 10 years on there is no rhyme or reason, it is just unlucky that two or three injuries came in a row and are so highly publicised. It’s just one of those things, the way the sport has gone unfortunately that some of the injuries can be pretty serious. But he has shown a lot of heart to get back and he is getting there.”

Anyway, Healy then McGrath changed to McGrath then Healy. With Healy unfit to bench against Wales or in Paris, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt felt it necessary to keep McGrath on the field for 154 minutes. Healy entered the Twickenham fray after an hour, but he pulled up, yet again, before Italy, so Finlay Bealham, and not Munster's James Cronin, was capped after 65 minutes. Healy returned, temporarily, to understudy for McGrath against Scotland. Last Saturday, amidst the Sportsground clatterings, he was forced off yet again.

McGrath is number one number now, unquestionably. “You come in as the new fish and you are looking at these guys wondering ‘How the hell am I going to get to 80 caps?’ Or ‘How am I going to be able to play 80 minutes of this when I am blowing after 10?’

“I have been playing a good bit and, touch wood without any injuries, I have got a bit of consistency. I got a bit of confidence in that.

“But it’s like anything – you eventually do get used to it, you improve on your mistakes, or you have to or you won’t get picked. You learn from the hard days and the good days.

“I have been very fortunate to come into a group where we won two Six Nations in a row and I learned from the guys that were there. There are still guys there that I am learning from.”

What’s changed in your game since Cian started at Murrayfield? “I’m more experienced, fitter, more confident. Few work-ons. Main one is bit more of an engine. The fitter you get, the more you can contribute around the pitch. Instead of doing one thing really good, you can do five or six things really, really good. Not just one big carry and then nothing.”

McGrath’s stats are off the charts for a heavyset prop. His 18 tackles and 11 carries against Wales are backrow numbers and not in isolation – there were 15 tackles in Paris. Both on days when the scrum was Ireland’s enemy, yet McGrath managed to compensate.

Horrible feeling

“What’s made me start to play a bit better and enjoy myself more was I had to speak to somebody. The day I spoke to somebody and told them how I was feeling I just felt this pressure coming off my chest. I have felt so good since, in my life, in my rugby. It’s such a strange feeling as I had been used to this horrible, knotty feeling in my stomach. Now I don’t have that.”

“It was very tough because we were very close. He would always stand in the same spot so when I run out I would always look over.”

Munster brings McGrath back to the Aviva Stadium this evening. That same feeling will come before kick-off. Same glance. Just without the knot.

“Funny thing is we have been training with each other for the last eight weeks and know each other inside out so it’s funny that now we are going head to head with them.

“These fellas are your mates, your brothers. You fight best with the people you love the most.”