AJ McGinty, the Sale Sharks outside half, is going to use his experience as a New York bar tender to help deal with the unique atmosphere created at the indoor La Defense arena in Paris against the superstars of Racing 92 in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final.
Sale have employed lasers and smoke machines allied to noise distraction in training in a effort to replicate the Racing 92 stadium which has an artificial pitch and enormous screen -the width of the pitch- at one end to confirm its status the sport’s most idiosyncratic setting.
For McGinty it has brought back memories of 10 years ago when his life dramatically changed to launch a rugby career that will take him to Bristol next season with Sale bringing in England’s George Ford to emphasise the size of the hole he is leaving in a squad that is also saying farewell to World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager.
All three are desperate to finish their Sale careers with some silverware and the Cup is their most likely avenue despite facing one of Europe most daunting challenges in Paris. McGinty said: “This is my 10 year anniversary of being a bar tender in New York City and a lot has changed. About this time ten years ago I was wondering what I was going to do after my one year visa and my Dad rang saying you need to get out of the pub and focus on your studies or do something else. An opportunity opened up in Atlanta to play rugby and study and then Pat Lam gave me the chance to play in Connacht. When I left Dublin you only went professional if you were a superstar and that is what was in my head and it has been crazy and I have loved every minute of it.
“The bar was the Pig and Whistle on 56th and Third (in Mid-town Manhattan) and stayed opened until 4am with good music and it was great preparation for the La Defense arena because they throw big parties there and so I will be used to it.
“ As a group we have tried to prepare ourselves so that it feels as if we have been there before with visualisation and mental preparation. Most kickers have to do that and the music and sounds we have replicated that will be playing in the stadium. We introduced disco lights and smoke as part of the preparation as well.”
McGinty has not played since damaging his leg against Gloucester on March 12 and had to wait nearly a week to discover if his final season at Sale would be ended by an operation. Thankfully, the surgeon did not recommend yet another procedure – he underwent knee surgery in 2021 – and then it was a case of regaining fitness. “The injury happened when we had the next week off after eight weeks on the roll:” he explained. “I got injured at Gloucester and had to wait the whole week to find out the severity of the injury and it was one that could have needed surgery and that is not what I wanted.
“That Saturday to the Friday when I found out was mixed emotions and I was all over the place because I am leaving the club at the end of the season. I want to do as much as I can before I finish and so I was relieved to get back. Over the last eight weeks there have been moments when it didn’t feel great and I am grateful to be able to play and finish the season strongly.
McGinty believes the presence of four players in the Sale team who featured in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final will be a key factor in handling the pressure of the occasion with de Klerk and de Jager having won the trophy with South Africa beating an England side containing Manu Tuilagi and Tom Curry. “We have in the squad two World Cup winners and two world cup finalists as well and Racing have the flair and superstars but we have big personalities and big game players in our team.
“Its about how bring our big game players in the match and how we pressure them when they have the ball because we know how dangerous they can be.”
Sale lost 45-21 at La Rochelle at this stage of the Cup last season and the second half collapse has been used as a warning to the players about letting Scotland outside half Finn Russell and Racing’s other star turns run free. “If you lapse for a split second Racing can punish you if they get space they can be dangerous and it about shutting them down. La Rochelle was a game that really hurt and we came out like bulls who saw red and then fell away. Against these brilliant teams it is about getting back into your system.”