Team hierarchies reveal themselves in all manner of ways and places.
Joe Schmidt’s team and the wider matchday 23 for the game against South Africa last Saturday stands as the most obvious example of that, but the order of perceived importance was apparent again last night as another Irish side took centre stage in Ballsbridge.
“I’m trying to get tickets, but they’re like hen’s teeth,” Jack McGrath laughed yesterday afternoon.
“I suppose you see more on the telly, don’t ya? If I could get tickets for tonight I’d definitely go ... Maybe the big dogs could (get tickets). We won’t mention names.”
McGrath may have struggled to wangle a perch in one of those cushy corporate boxes for the Republic’s World Cup play-off second leg with Denmark, but the Leinster forward would clearly rank up there with the leaders of the Irish pack on the field of play.
Ireland’s first-choice loosehead prop for some time now, he augmented his standing with appearances off the bench in all three of the summer’s British and Irish Lions Test matches against New Zealand.
He’s 28 now. In his prime. Nine years he has been on the circuit with Leinster. Its four since he won the first of his 41 caps for Ireland against Samoa, and yet there was a sense last weekend, maybe for the first time, of his preeminent status being challenged.
Ruled out of the Springboks game with a hip injury that had curtailed his training, McGrath was only able to look on as a rejuvenated Cian Healy impressed in the No.1 shirt before David Kilcoyne bagged a shorter, 14-minute audition before the end.
“It was hard to take. I struggled last week with the selection, but I realised that the boys were playing well. You have to respect that, you have to respect the coach’s decision. It’s not the end of the world. Hopefully I get selected to play this week and put my hand up for selection.”
McGrath’s star has been so long in the ascendant, his presence so ubiquitous, that his watching brief nudged him towards a reevaluation.
Not in the sense that he was doing something wrong. Moreso in that it allowed him to step back and appreciate where he is still at.
Brian O’Driscoll used to talk about the need for ‘good tourists’, those guys left unpicked on Lions Test weeks but whose buy-in is so essential to the week’s prep, and McGrath duly rolled up his sleeve and did what was required.
“You don’t just mope around and think ‘this is shit’. It’s a squad effort.”
He understands context is important. That Schmidt needs to breed competition three and four deep in every spot.
And that Lions duties meant a much later start to the season for him.
He had featured just four times for Leinster before injuring that hip away to Ulster at the end of October.
McGrath still has some catching-up to do and you’d imagine he’ll start about it by bagging a fair bit of game time on Saturday when Schmidt juggles his resources for a game against Fiji which is the easiest of the team’s November ties on paper.
There is no hint of despondency as he sits and talks. Laughs and jokes are sprinkled through the conversation and maybe part of that is the realisation that he has much less to do to rediscover his best post-Lions than Cian Healy had four years before.
An ankle injury suffered on the 2013 tour of Australia signalled just the beginning of a long and difficult road back to the sort of form that prompted Healy’s selection by Warren Gatland in the first place so McGrath appreciates that time and patience is relative.
“If you are trying too hard to play too well, you can make a lot of mistakes. We need a good team performance on Saturday and there probably will be a lot of changes. It’s a great opportunity for a lot of lads.”
Many an Irish player has returned from the Lions with nuggets aplenty to incorporate into his game and McGrath was especially taken with forwards coach Steve Borthwick whilst relishing the chance of extra time with Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell.
He will be a better player for his summer sojourn, we just haven’t had the chance to see it yet.
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