Ever-present McGrath back on South African soil with Ireland
Rory Keane reports from Cape Town
IT MAY BE week 50 of a gruelling season but Jack McGrath, virtually ever-present for province and country, is not feeling the pace.
McGrath is a key figure for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Leinster’s loss against Connacht in the Pro12 final has been put to one side. Provincial rivalries have been parked. A three-Test series in one of the most hostile environments in world rugby is now on the agenda.
“The season’s finished with Leinster,” said McGrath.
“We had a couple of days to let it sink in. It was very disappointing for a couple of days after but coming into a new environment with Ireland, it’s changed. We have to be friends with the guys who beat us. You’d think it would be tough but it’s not. We all have the one goal and that’s trying to make history by winning down here, something we’ve never done.”
The 26-year-old loosehead played a crucial role in the 29-15 victory against the much-fancied Springboks in November 2014.
It was the kind of performance that is taken for granted with McGrath nowadays: Solid scrummaging, massive workrate and plenty of streetwise contributions around the park. Then there was his crucial role in those uncontested mauls; the Springboks and their press are still smarting about that ploy.
Playing the Boks at the end of their season in Dublin is one thing, facing them in front of 51,000 vociferous Springbok supporters at Newlands with ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ still ringing in your ears is a different proposition altogether.
McGrath warms up for training in South Africa. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
“Absolutely, it’s different gravy playing them in their home spot,” agreed McGrath.
“For us as a pack we really have to step up because they take pride in their forward battles, especially their scrum. So it’s an area we need to be really clued in because I think if we give them an inch they’re going to take a mile and that’s what gets their crowd into the game.
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“If they’re dominating their scrum, it starts from there so we need to be aware of that.”
Unlike the vast majority of this Ireland squad, McGrath has visited Bok country in the past: “I was actually here on a Leinster (Schools) U18 tour back in 2007, so nine years ago I was here. I really enjoyed it the last time… we played different kind of provincial and development teams and it was a great experience.
“I was just looking back. I looked at a picture before we left of the guys that were on the tour and it’s just funny how many guys came through and are still playing, still playing club rugby or who aren’t playing anymore. Probably 60% of the guys aren’t around anymore and they were the best of the best of the schools game.”
So, how many of that touring squad are still playing?
“Guys still playing would be Noel Reid, Dominic Ryan and Darren Hudson, who was a guy I went to school with,” he explained. ”That’s to name but a few that are still playing, there’s others that aren’t. Professional rugby isn’t suited for everyone but the guys that aren’t playing are enjoying themselves and that was a great trip.”
The Ireland squad dived with sharks yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Two years after that schools adventure, McGrath would be sitting in front of the TV watching the Lions take on the Boks in almighty battles in Durban, Loftus Versfeld and Pretoria.
This Saturday, McGrath will be down in the bear pit in the middle of all the mayhem: “A lot of boys saw when South Africa played the Lions back in 2009 and how intense it was. I remember watching and thinking I’ve never experienced, even watching on the TV, I’ve never experienced anything like it. I always thought I’d love to be able to play over here and luckily I have an opportunity to.”
Retirements, injuries and sevens commitments have robbed South Africa of a host of stars – the likes of Bryan Habana, Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and Schalk Burger will not be present for this Test series. This is a still a hugely talented and physically imposing Springboks squad, however.
The next three assignments in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth represent the ultimate challenge for this Irish squad.
“Absolutely. In South Africa, in Cape Town, it is,” McGrath added. “We’re excited but there’s a bit of nervousness there. It’s going to be incredible, like nothing any of us have experienced and we’re all raring to go.”
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