Luke McGrath seizes his chance to become Leinster’s No 9
Young scrumhalf excited by the chance to pit his wits against Clermont’s Morgan Parra
Luke McGrath: “It’s going to be a massive challenge but you’re only going to learn from playing these guys.” Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
When Eoin Reddan followed Isaac Boss into retirement over the summer, it left the door to the Leinster number nine jersey ajar. Despite the arrival of Maori All Blacks scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park from the Hurricanes, Luke McGrath has burst through in some style.
His distribution, kicking game and support play have steadily blossomed, as he has started more games for Leinster this season, 18, than in the previous five seasons since coming through their famed Academy and into the senior squad. After making his European Champions Cup debut in Leinster’s solitary pool win last season at home to Bath, McGrath has started all seven of their games this season.
Now, having attended the 2009 and 2012 finals, and dreamt of one day emulating those boyhood heroes, he and Leinster find themselves one game away from a fourth final, albeit with Clermont Auvergne standing in their way in Lyon next Sunday.
More regular game time has brought its own demands.
“I’ve become more accustomed to the speed of the ball, the physicality as well. I’ve become better at scanning for where the space is; whether to put the kick in, to pass or to run. I’m kind of trying to alter my game a bit,” says McGrath.
“Stuart [Lancaster] has been brilliant; he’s brought in new ideas for number nines. He’s worked closely with Ben Youngs and Danny Care with England. He challenges us every day in training. There’s more running metres now in training than probably ever.
Lancaster has also infused him with more confidence.
“He won’t give out to you for having a go; if you see space, go for it. If you see an option to kick, go for it. Those options will come. Every day in training he really gets on you about running, about making the breakdown.
“He wants speed of ball, because we wouldn’t be the most physical side so obviously we have to try and run the bigger packs around. That’s probably what we’re going to be doing this week as well. I’ve no doubt we’ll be getting it in the ear from him this week, but that’s only going to make you a better player.”
Having also made his Test debut against Canada in November, he saw out the last 11 minutes of the win over England in some style. The memory of that day is still vivid. Joe Schmidt was also suitably impressed.
“That was incredible. I think the atmosphere in the last 10 minutes was something I’d never experienced before. It was an incredible moment in my career and those moments give you a bit more confidence, playing at international level against England when they’re on an unbeaten run.
“It just boosts your confidence a bit more and I’m trying to bring that confidence back into Leinster and I feel I have done that in the last few games and I feel that there’s a lot more that I can improve on still.”
Next up Clermont, and the atmosphere at Lyon’s Matmut Stadium de Gerland should be fairly feverish too.
“Even going over to France, you know how loud it’s going to be. Such a challenge. Clermont’s attack speaks for itself. They scored nearly 60 points last week against Grenoble away from home. They’re lifted by the crowd. We’re going to have to work incredibly hard for each other.
“They convert a lot of their line breaks as we’ve seen earlier this morning. If that happens, we’re going to have to work incredibly hard for each other to get back. We need to impose our game, what’s been going well for us has been our unstructured attack and I think last week with our defence, Connacht played a really good attacking shape which was brilliant for us to get that in before we go over to France.”
McGrath’s tete-a-tete with Morgan Parra will be pivotal to Sunday’s outcome.
“He’s incredibly talented,” admits McGrath.
“I watched him growing up. I’ve watched him for France and Clermont and he’s exciting. He’s their talisman; he brings their pace when they want to play quick; his kicking game; everything really. It’s going to be a massive challenge but you’re only going to learn from playing these guys and I’m really excited to go up against them.”