Tuesday 10 December 2019

Luke eyes up Bilbao

Winger Lowe waiting on McGrath to prove fitness

Hopeful: Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath
Hopeful: Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath

It is one thing to battle back from injury to make a case for inclusion in The Champions Cup final.

It is another to go through the process for the benefit of others, particularly James Lowe, in order to have a positive knock-on effect on the options open to coach Leo Cullen.

At the moment, Luke McGrath has to satisfy a timeline to recover from an ankle injury to make the biggest game of his life.

It is looking a great deal better this week than it did last week, even though he won't be involved for Leinster against Connacht in the final match of the PRO14 League regular season in Galway tomorrow.

"It has been funny at Leinster this season," he said, in relation to how the club can only select two from their three 'non-European' players.

"Obviously, when I couldn't make the Scarlets game, it meant James couldn't make it either.

"He was giving me a bit of stick all last week, smiling while giving me stick. It is just one of those things," he rationalised.

The scrum-half has moved his game on this season by finding the balance between going to Jonathan Sexton and his big forward runners, kicking when appropriate and taking the ball on for personal gain.

The 25-year-old looked like moving ahead of Kieran Marmion when making the bench against France for the first round of the Six Nations.

The nature of the endgame meant McGrath never got to show what he can do for Ireland at Stade de France.

"It was understandable why I didn't come on in the France game," he said.

Still, he had one of the best seats in the house to watch the last four minutes play out.

"Johnny hits that drop goal and you are on the pitch celebrating like crazy lunatics.

"It was great to be involved and at a stadium I hadn't been to before.

"The atmosphere was something else and to see Johnny do what he did, I hadn't seen anything like that before."

Leinster were humming in Europe and Ireland had just escaped a strait-jacket in Paris.

"I was loving my rugby back then," he said.

However, Marmion earned the bench spot against Italy in a rotation policy implemented by coach Joe Schmidt and McGrath's knee gave way a week later against Scarlets in the PRO14 League.


Then, when he made it back for The Ospreys for 80 minutes and the Champions quarter-final, all looked rosy in the garden again.

Or so the nimble half-back thought, an ankle injury limiting his impact against Saracens to 65 minutes.

"I actually played on with it for about 10-15 minutes. It felt okay running. I just had to make one kick with it. It was trying to balance on that standing leg and it kind of collapsed."

There was nothing for it, but to call it an afternoon and let Nick McCarthy close the show.

"The two injuries have been sickening, just the timing of them," he said.

McGrath was reported to be close to making it back for the Scarlets last Saturday. That had to be shelved and the goalposts moved to the final in Bilbao on May 12.

"You know when you're not right yourself," he shared. "You let the physios know and they give the information to the management."

There must have been a temptation to hold something back, to convince yourself and everyone else that everything would be alright.

"There is temptation. But you have to be smart as well. There is no point in going out there and not being able to do what you have to do.

"My position demands so much running, getting from ruck to ruck," he added.

"If you are not getting there quickly, you are compromising your performance and, more than that, you are compromising what the team can do.

"It was a semi-final of the European Cup against Scarlets, one of the best sides around. I knew I wasn't right to play a game of that calibre."

Hopefully, everything will fall into place for McGrath ahead of Bilbao.

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