Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

JACK MCGRATH SPEAKS like a man who has been around the Ireland scene much longer than his 12 caps or 25 years.

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There’s an innate maturity about the Ireland’s starting loosehead that has brought him into the leadership group at Leinster and makes you listen when he speaks. So when he talks about winning “by the skin of our teeth” in 2011 or how Italy “turned us over” about the most recent trips to Rome, you almost forget that he wasn’t there.

He would make his debut eight months later, but at that stage, he was still watching international props from afar, and taking mental notes about what they were up to.

“I’ve been watching him for years,” he says of his direct opponent on Saturday, the notorious Martin Castrogiovanni.

“He’s a guy who, if you were a young tighthead you looked towards. So I would have seen him with guys who wanted to play tighthead; they’d talk about him.

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“You know you’re going to come up against him at some stage, so you see what he’s like. He’s the type of guy you have to respect, but you have to go in and make him respect you.”

While the headlines will almost certainly centre around how Ian Keatley, the back row or centre partnership performs, McGrath is literally the front line. If he’s able to help defuse Italy’s primary weapon, then the home side will inevitably struggle. Easier said than done, however, they’re a sadistic sort, these Italian scrummagers.

“Their scrum, their line-out and maul; they really want to shove it that in your face,” notes McGrath with relish rather than fear.

“If we can meet them in that area and maybe go one better. That’s what we ideally want to do, but it’s not just doing it once it’s going it every time, because if you give them a sniff there’s massive confidence there.

“Especially at home, because the crowd is going to get right behind them and really rally them up. It’s up to us as a pack to really get stuck into them early.”

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He says all the right things and – on the pitch, on and off the ball – he invariably does all the right things too. So it’s unfortunate for McGrath that there happens to be a world class prop with an explosive ball-carrying ability  blocking his route to the first team.

Cian Healy was said to be close to being fit enough to take part this weekend, but will instead push his return from a serious hamstring injury back for at least another week. And if McGrath can put it a solid day’s work against a renowned scrummaging outfit then Healy may have to sit and wait even longer on the bench.

“Well, that’s the plan, anyway,” McGrath says with a grin that fails to hold back a laugh.

“Cian’s obviously a world class player. I’ll play this game and see how I get on then put it into Joe’s hands with selection – all I can do is the best I can do and if he feels he has to select me again, he has to select me again.”

“For me, you just have to look after your own job. I wouldn’t be worried about [Italian front row players] too much or what they’re saying to me. Castro’s been there, over 100 caps, he knows every trick in the book.

“With Rory and Rossy beside me I’d be confident I can go in and be able to do a job and hopefully cause a bit of damage.”

Originally published at 06.00

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