When Jack McGrath walks into a room, it’s not hard to see how he’s an international front-rower. Standing at over six feet tall and weighing in at just over 19 stone, McGrath has the look, feel and build of a professional prop. He also has the mentality though, as he quickly scans the room and selects from the assortment of sandwiches that are on offer prior to our interview.
With a healthy appetite and a hulking physique, McGrath fits the mould of what we would stereotypically associate with your stock-standard international rugby prop, but when we dig a little deeper below the surface, McGrath has not met up with me to just eat sandwiches and ‘shoot the sh*t’.
He’s at Lansdowne Rugby Club as part of the Irish Rugby Union’s Players Association Tackle Your Feelings campaign, a series of panel discussions aimed at promoting positive mental wellbeing and encouraging those with doubts around their mental health to step forward and seek help.
As a Leinster and Ireland international, McGrath is hoping he can use his platform as a professional rugby player to incite change and inspire those around him to be okay with how they’re feeling.
The 27-year-old has come a long way since his brother took his own life in 2010 and after confiding in just a small circle of family and friends following his brother’s death, McGrath now speaks openly and candidly about how he feels about it in front of a room full of 200 people.
The Dubliner has played in some pretty hostile atmospheres on the field with both Leinster and Ireland over the years, and he was on the pitch when Ireland clinched the 2014 Six Nations title over France in front of more than 78,000 people at the Stade De France in Paris. However, to speak openly and honestly in front of a room full of strangers, about a subject matter that is very personally close to him, was still quite daunting for the Leinster prop.
“I spoke to Crede Sheehy-Kelly from IRUPA who was running it, and I just said that I’d meet her for a coffee and tell her my story and said I’d like to be involved,” McGrath told Pundit Arena.
“I thought it would be important to be involved and then when I thought about it a bit more, I wasn’t sure.
“I was like ‘I don’t know if I’m comfortable putting myself out in the open too much’ and then I spoke to my family and they were hugely positive and they said ‘go for it’.
“I was still a bit unsure and then I gave myself another little bit of time talking to my girlfriend and I chose to do it.”
McGrath is now one of the central figures of the Tackle Your Feelings campaign and claims it’s one of the best things he’s ever done in his life. The St. Mary’s man not only realises how important it is to be accountable with how you’re feeling as a person, but also the impact he can have as a professional rugby player on a range of social issues.
“Sometimes you don’t realise how many people can listen to you when you are a player,” added McGrath.
“I see myself as a normal bloke. I don’t see myself as an Irish or a Leinster player, so it was refreshing to see the feedback I got; it was really, really positive.
“We’re all humans and we all have bad days. Fair enough I’m a rugby player, but I’m still human and a lot of other guys are the same.
“Everyone goes through hard times and it’s okay to talk about your feelings because if anything it’s going to make you a better player. That’s what I found opening up, and just saying how you feel, because when you’re down and you hold it in, it’s not good. When you talk to someone it is like a gas valve releasing.”
When McGrath’s brother passed six years ago, Jack was just on the cusp of transitioning into a professional rugby career. He had spent a number of years in the Leinster Academy and was just about to sign a new deal with the club when he first heard the news.
“I remember when it happened. It was my last day in the academy and I was moving onto a developmental contract the next season, but Leinster were playing the Ospreys in the final of the league, and it happened on the Friday. The game was on the Saturday, and Leinster lost. I remember watching it on the TV… like it was a bad weekend all round,” he says now with a chuckle.
“For me it was something I thought ‘okay you have to be strong for your family, it’s not something you’re going to go around ranting and raving about it’.
“But [my brother] was a driver for a lot of my success. Eventually it got to a point where five years on, it was starting to affect me a little bit more. I just got to a point where it had to be spoken about.
“When I showed the video to the boys. I’d say 90% of the lads didn’t know it had happened. It was only my close mates that I was in the academy with that would have known because we were due to meet up that night for an end of season academy party and I didn’t turn up and the lads were ringing me.
“I obviously told them but it wouldn’t have been something they would have been broadcasting around but yeah some lads knew but a lot of lads didn’t.”
It makes sense that not a lot of McGrath’s team-mates would have known about his brother’s passing. When his brother died, McGrath had only told a small group of people about the death and as he said ‘it’s not something that was going to be broadcast’ much around the RDS or Belfield.
But with time passing and with a growing familiarity for Leinster, his team-mates and himself, McGrath decided to share his story and he now believes that it’s brought his side closer together.
“It’s probably something that when you open up that much to a group, that are like my second family, and you’re telling them you’re deepest darkest secrets to people that you trust, it’s going to transfer onto the field.
“Maybe unknowingly to us all we’ve just got that little bit tighter but yeah it’s a good place to be anyway at the moment, it does feel like a tight group.”
Leinster could use as much togetherness and unity as possible this weekend as Leo Cullen’s side prepare to kick-off their Champions Cup campaign this Saturday against Castres at the RDS.
With just one win from six group games last season, the 2015/16 Champions Cup was one of the province’s worst European campaigns in club history and certainly the worst in McGrath’s time as a Leinster player.
The mobile front-rower claims that Leinster players are still hurting after last season’s harrowing experience in Europe but, for the current squad, it’s about raising their intensity levels and going after Castres this weekend.
“It was a hugely disappointing Champions Cup campaign for us last year and I think for us to get back to where we want to be we need a win this weekend,” said McGrath.
“Guys have to step up, quality players have to step up. I think our league campaign went well [last year] but I think when we got the young guys out against Bath for the second last game of the campaign we played well and then the following week we played Wasps and got absolutely hosed.
“There was still guys hurting after that and I think this weekend is coming at the right time but we know we have to step up another level.
“The Guinness league is different but we need to step up our intensity and quality. We need to get back on the horse and it starts this weekend with Castres.”
Leinster take on Castres from 3:15pm at the RDS this Saturday with McGrath to contend with Cian Healy for a place in Leinster’s starting XV.
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This was part of Pundit Arena’s weekly rugby podcast, The Oval Office.
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Tackle Your Feelings is a mental wellbeing campaign, developed and delivered by IRUPA, which sees provincial and international rugby stars come forward to tell their own personal story of the issues they have faced on and off the pitch. To learn more visit http://www.tackleyourfeelings.com/
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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