By Brendan O'Brien
Luke McGrath knew the score before the first question was delivered.
With Wasps the opposition for Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener at the RDS, it was inevitable that the conversation would zoom in on the game at the same venue and at the same stage three seasons before when the English side posted a 33-6 win.
The defeat had been the cue for a traumatic European campaign that would deliver five defeats and just a single win for Leinster. It all ended with a 51-10 tanning to the same side at the Ricoh Arena three months later.
A fourth star above the crest never appeared less likely than then.
McGrath came on that first day in Dublin with a half-hour to go and Leinster already 23-6 down: a raw 22-year old scrum-half with just 21 minutes of European fare under his belt from the season before and with the ground giving way beneath their feet.
“It was such a bad start, he recalled. “I remember we talked about going to Bath the next week and having to win that game. We nearly won it at the end. But we didn’t put out a great performance. We were just always back-tracking then.
Wasps moreso than Leinster’s. Eight of the 23 who featured for the Premiership side that day have moved on. Among them are Danny Cipriani, Kurtley Beale and James Haskell. Only five of Leinster’s are no longer at the club. Bad as that season was in Europe, the seeds of something big were already taking root. Young players were thrown into the deep end as a collective. All of them managed to keep their heads above water but the fear until last May’s Champions Cup triumph was that the new generation would fail to match the feats of the one that preceded it with three titles.
“Yeah, possibly,” said McGrath, “yeah, maybe. But then Stuart (Lancaster) came in and a lot of young talent came through at the same time. We had a great mix last year between the young and more experienced guys that had done it.
“It was very bleak memories back then. We just had to make sure that never happened again. It’s important we know we have a target on our backs now because we are the champions. It’s important to keep those high standards and keep improving.”
McGrath’s pathway has aped that of the team.
The retirements of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss finally provided the opportunity to dig himself in as the preferred nine with Leinster and six Ireland caps have followed suit. All of which must have have felt some way distant when Wasps did them over that time.
McGrath’s importance to the cause as Leinster begin the defence of their European crown this Friday will be all the more apparent if fellow scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park fails to recover from the ankle injury suffered against Munster last weekend.
The options thereafter differ mainly in levels of inexperience with Nick McCarthy like to play back-up and academy prospects Hugh Patterson and Paddy Patterson looking on enviously in much the same way McGrath did with Boss and Reddan for so long.
“We saw a lot more of them in the pre-season,” said McGrath. “Hughie got capped and Patrick has been brilliant for the ‘A’ team. There is so much competition. It is just ongoing here in Leinster which is brilliant to see.”
Gibson-Park aside, Leinster have little in the way of worries. Jordan Larmour is due to return to training having sat out Munster with a hip injury while Jack McGrath came through his first 40 minutes of the season after injury with no ill effects.
Wasps’ injury update echoes all that. Joe Launchbury, Brad Shiels and Lima Sopoaga all look on course to be available after injuries of varying seriousness while Willie le Roux is back on site after his duties with the Springboks and having passed concussion protocols.
Scrum-half Dan Robson is awaiting updates from an MRI scan on a leg injury.