Friday 28 April 2017

Tony Ward: I hate everything Toulon's European wins stand for - Leinster and Munster do it the right way

Irish talent development system gives provinces a chance to compete at the top

Munster’s Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Munster’s Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

For sure Irish rugby is back at the top end of the European game - not that we had ever gone away.

I was flabbergasted at the doom and gloom merchants predicting the death of Irish competitiveness when the Heineken Cup became the Champions Cup and the TV income for English and French clubs moved to another level.

Allied to post-World Cup depression, there was a fair degree of pessimism last season when no Irish team managed to make it through to the European knockout stages - the first shut-out since 1998.

In financial terms it is still far from a level playing field, and the standard of this great competition is so high that this whitewash could well happen again; but if it does, look at the developmental system in the Irish game for reassurance that blips, however unpalatable, will only be occasional.

Of course passion will play its part, as alluded to by Alan Quinlan in these pages yesterday, but far more important than that is the work being done at underage in the clubs and in the schools prior to even entering the ever-improving Academies.

I hate Toulon and everything their three European Cup titles stand for.

Sword

Indeed, if one result delighted me as much Leinster and Munster's victories, it was Clermont putting bought-in success and what Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal espouses to the sword for another year at least (given that another bus-load of global stars is due to arrive in the summer, along with Fabien Galthie as the latest head coach).

Leinster’s Joey Carbery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Joey Carbery. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Overseas players are an integral part of professional rugby, and they can bring a lot in terms of new ideas, but to have-money mad clubs buying silverware is bonkers.

And if the local population cannot understand that, then I suggest they take a look at the decline in the French national side.

I may criticise the IRFU from time to time but the Irish system has become the model to which many others around the world aspire - even if it is not perfect.

But back to the weekend quarter-finals and a clean sweep for the home sides. The first and last games were the two most likely to bring away victories, given Wasps' threat on the counter and Toulon's never-changing suffocation tactics.

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In the end Leinster won every bit as convincingly as the scoreline suggests, and Clermont too.

I'm not suggesting that Clermont are paupers - far from it - but at least they go about the game in the right way.

My favourites for the title are Saracens, followed by Clermont, Leinster and Munster.

The manner in which Saracens put Glasgow away was thoroughly impressive. They are the most complete, most balanced unit of the four still standing.

Director of rugby Mark McCall deserves immense credit not just for silverware in the locker but for the quality of the rugby. Again, they aren't my favourite club but the way they are playing now cannot but be admired, and for that the former Ulster centre should take the lion's share of the credit.

That said, the Aviva in the semi-final will be a massive leveller, with 50,000-plus Munster fans in the arena. McCall noted: "We know there's going to be an emotional element and we have to make sure we're able to cope with that."

Playing at Lansdowne Road will not win the game for Munster (as Wasps proved against them at the same stage back in 2004) but it will make for an atmosphere that not even the most seasoned Saracen will have experienced before.

But more than anything, this is the opportunity for this new generation to create their own little bit of history and a new chapter in the ongoing story of Munster rugby.

So too Leinster, given it is five years now since Leo Cullen lifted the trophy at Twickenham. Players too young to have featured then - Joey Carbery, Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Luke McGrath, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan - are making their mark now.

They will have the most difficult task in going to Lyon to front up to a Clermont side built on French or French-qualified players - all but four of the starting XV against Toulon are French-qualified.

Clermont will be fancied but it is clear that Leinster have what it takes to make it through to Edinburgh and challenge for title No 4.

So too Munster, and no I am not losing the run of myself. Against Toulouse they were patient and they were passionate; they were rattled for periods but more than anything they were the resilient, intensive and disciplined Munster of old.

Here too a new generation led by John Ryan is on the rise. This is their time.

I particularly want to highlight Duncan Williams because on Saturday given the circumstances of Conor Murray's late withdrawal, the former CBC schoolboy was outstanding.

The semi-finals on April 22/23 can't come quickly enough.

Irish Independent

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