McGrath relishing challenge

As Jack McGrath lounges on a sofa, you could not imagine the young prop was preparing to go toe to toe with a mighty South African pack of forwards.

Almost horizontal as his 6ft 1ins, 18st 8lb body relaxes into the upholstery at the team hotel, his front row colleague Mike Ross is standing tall on the opposite side of one of the Ireland team hotel’s numerous anterooms, filling a doorway with his own considerable frame as he gets his picture taken.

Their presence makes the room feel as confined as a crowded lift and brings into sharp focus the shuddering physicality that will be unleashed when these bodies begin to collide with their Springbok adversaries at the Aviva Stadium this evening.

Not that you would guess from McGrath’s demeanour. The 25-year-old talks of the intensity to come but does so with the relish of a man about to tuck into his favourite meal, and in a manner that belies the fact that this is only his third start in a Test match.

His first came exactly a year ago, with the Leinster loosehead handed an international debut against Samoa which justified Joe Schmidt’s faith in his former provincial charge as he turned in a man of the match performance.

McGrath has been involved on Ireland match days pretty much ever since, dropping comfortably into a role as back-up to Leinster colleague Cian Healy eight times in succession last season as he finished a first Six Nations campaign with a winner’s medal. He then started the summer’s first Test in Argentina and had a rare game off when Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne got the nod for the second Test and his provincial team-mate James Cronin occupied the bench.

It was also a season which saw McGrath earn Leinster’s Players’ Player of the Year award but that was then. Healy is out injured until at least the 2015 Six Nations, and having held off the claims of Kilcoyne, he gets the biggest start of his Test career later today when he faces the Boks.

It was a selection long mooted but while McGrath is determined to grab his chance with both hands, he knows nothing is ever certain in this game.

“You can never take anything for granted. You never you know until you’re picked and Dave has been playing very well for Munster, as was James until he unfortunately got injured. So it’s great to get selected for such a big match because these are pretty tough opponents.

“They’re going to be very physical but we’ve done a lot of prep and we’re looking forward to it.

“It is an opportunity and yeah, I am looking forward to it, there’s no other way you can put it. It is a massive opportunity.”

McGrath has also been buoyed this week by praise from the injury-stricken Healy, reduced to a spectator role due to an aggravated hamstring problem. The Lions loosehead spent big-game week promoting a new line in beds rather than preparing to face the Boks and said regaining the number one jersey from McGrath would be harder than his long-term rehabilitation and that even when fit, he fears losing his place to his junior partner.

“It’s always nice to get a compliment like that off a word-class player like him, nice to hear that he’d say that” McGrath said, before moving the conversation modestly in a different direction. “For Saturday I’m just going to concentrate on my job, not try and do anything out of the ordinary or try to be any type of a different player to any other game. I’m just going to try and play the way I have been and that’s merited my selection.”

With eight of his 10 caps coming off the bench, McGrath spent enough time as Healy’s replacement last season to understand just how different a dynamic exists between starter and sub in the front row than in other positions, describing their contribution over 80 minutes as “a pretty good tag team”.

For the autumn, though, the tag team comprises McGrath and Kilcoyne and competition has little to do with it. “At the end of the day, we’re on the team together, it’s not as if I’m going to hide something from him. It’s for the greater good of the team if we both know our role because it’s all about the smallest of margins when you get to this highest level.”

And this is a contest certainly at the highest level, not least in the front row. Much is made of the South African’s settled combination of Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira, Bismarck du Plessis and Jannie du Plessis, each of them capped more than 60 times and a unit that’s played 15 Tests together. McGrath has nothing but respect for them but even without Healy and Best, the loosehead points to an all-Leinster trio as he packs down alongside hooker Sean Cronin and Ross.

“With Sean and Mike on the other side and Richardt (Strauss, the Leinster hooker on the replacements’ bench) to come in, we slot in quite easily together. You slot into your binds quicker when you know the guy and you know what he wants, so it’s good in that regard.

“On the other side, I suppose, with the du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie, and ‘the Beast’, they play for the Sharks together so they’re in the same boat and they’re pretty experienced so it’s a massive challenge for us. We’ve done our homework on them and hopefully we can get a good outcome.

“Jannie Du Plessis, he’s right up there. I’ve never played against him but he’s number one in South Africa and he’s a world-class operator. He knows his stuff and if you’re hooking with your brother there’s no better combination, I suppose.

“It’s definitely a challenge but, sure, why do you play rugby if it’s not a challenge?”

Of course, while McGrath has not faced du Plessis before, it’s the same for his tighthead adversary. So what can the Springbok expect from the young Irishman? “Yeah, well, I don’t want to say too much now, but hopefully he’ll expect a bit of a battle,” says the loosehead. “It’s going to be a tough one. I have massive respect for him, he’s been around a long time and proved he’s their number one tighthead but it’s another opportunity for me to show that I’m up to the highest level of rugby.”

Just 12 months into his Test career, McGrath has come a long way and now he is faced with the challenge of continuing his progress rather than plateauing or, worse still, taking a dreaded step back.

“It’s been a great year and I don’t want to be a flash in the pan with the second season syndrome.

“It can happen to a lot of players and so you need to stay goal-focused in that regard. Not get ahead of yourself, always doing your homework and just staying right and staying fit because you never know when you’re going to get injured and there’s always guys behind you looking for your place. So you do always have to stay on top of your game and stay ahead of the curve.”

When your second season in Test rugby leads straight into a World Cup, that should be enough to keep anyone “goal-focused”.

“Yeah, it is. You have short-term goals and long-term goals and the long-term goal is to get on the plane to England for the World Cup. But there are plenty of short-term goals to achieve first and I’m not going to get ahead of myself. There’s a big enough challenge to overcome this weekend.

“We’ll deal with that first.”

Match facts

• Brian O’Driscoll’s retirement and Gordon D’Arcy’s recent calf injury mean Ireland go from 212 combined centre caps at the end of the Six Nations to just three midfield appearances, with Jared Payne making his Test debut alongside Robbie Henshaw.

• Hooker Sean Cronin will win his 36th Ireland cap against the Springboks – but will make just his seventh Test start.

• Ireland show six changes from the starting line-up that closed out the Six Nations title with a 22-20 victory in Paris on March 15, with some 17 men missing through injury.

• Victory would hand Ireland five consecutive victories for the first time since 2009, and become their best winning run since October 2011.

• Ireland’s South Africa-born replacement hooker Richardt Strauss could face cousin Adriaan in Test action for the second time in his career, after the two squared up in November 2012.

• Leinster’s Strauss is back in Ireland colours for the first time since June 2013 after battling back from heart surgery and a nasty hamstring tear.

• South Africa and Ireland have played each other 21 times since 1906, with the Springboks winning 16 Tests, Ireland triumphant in four and one ending in a draw.

• Heyneke Meyer has fielded an unchanged starting line-up for just the fifth time in his 34-Test tenure as Springboks head coach.

• Victor Matfield will extend his record South Africa caps haul to 118, with the 37-year-old already installed as the oldest Springbok of all time.

• Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Duane Vermeulen, Jannie du Plessis and Bismarck du Plessis have played in all nine Tests for the Springboks in 2014.

• South Africa will field three centurions for just the third time in their history – with all three Tests coming this year – with Matfield, Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana all among the 100 club.


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