Wednesday 26 April 2017

Tony Ward: Edinburgh final has backfired and it is maximum exploitation for fans

Ultan Dillane, right, and Robbie Henshaw embrace as they and Connacht fans celebrate Saturday’s win over Glasgow. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ultan Dillane, right, and Robbie Henshaw embrace as they and Connacht fans celebrate Saturday’s win over Glasgow. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Ireland supporters sing it, so too Munster, Liverpool and Celtic fans as well, but on Saturday evening at the Sportsground, The Fields of Athenry had its right sporting fit.

With a couple of minutes left on the clock and 14-man Connacht defending that five-point lead for all they were worth, Pete St John's great fighting song was bellowed out with a resonance like never before.

This was pure tribal passion, players and fans united in a common cause. It's why so many of us fall in love with this incredible imitation of life called sport.

To carry that musical link a tad further, what we have witnessed in this momentous season, to borrow from Phil Coulter, is 'Four proud provinces shoulder to shoulder'. No longer is it three and a developmental afterthought.

What I love more than anything is that no longer does a Gavin Duffy or a Johnny O'Connor have to head outside the western province to foreign shores in pursuit of that rugby dream.

John Muldoon and Co may not fully appreciate it just now but they have stoked a fire - young boys in every county west of the Shannon want to wear that green jersey on big nights at the Sportsground.

It is a fantastic sporting story, regardless of whether Connacht emulate Leicester City and actually seal the deal.

Worthy

We witnessed two great Pro 12 semi-finals at the weekend, and the two teams that won through are worthy finalists.

On Friday at the RDS - now a great rugby venue, in my view - we were treated to a Leinster masterclass. They hit the ground running and never looked back despite Ulster's best phases either side of the interval.

Ultimately it was man of the match Jamie Heaslip's second-half try that determined the outcome - some day he will be appreciated by his own as the great No 8 that he is and has always been - but it was difficult not to marvel at the organisation and level of intensity, especially compared to the Kingspan display against the same opposition three weeks earlier. Kurt McQuilkin take a bow.

There were big performances from big players in key positions specifically Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy (absolutely outstanding), Heaslip, Eoin Reddan, Johnny Sexton (one back for Ravenhill), Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa and Luke Fitzgerald.

Right from Reddan's first pin-point kick on Andrew Trimble, Lukey was buzzing on Friday night .

I have never hidden my preference for naturally left-sided players on the left wing. In Simon Zebo and Fitzgerald we possess two players naturally suited to that role. Fitzgerald is in flying form, and with Zebo out injured, he is a cert not alone for a seat on the plane to South Africa but for that No 11 shirt as well. I doubt Joe Schmidt will see it any differently.

For Ulster, Iain Henderson was on fire, with Chris Henry and Sean Reidy not that far behind.

Paddy Jackson too, despite suggestions to the contrary, also had another very constructive outing. As an out-and-out No 10 he is second only to Sexton but Ian Madigan's versatility continues to muddy the waters when it comes to the Ireland bench selection.

And, on form, Jared Payne is still the most complete full-back available to Schmidt.

It is difficult not to feel for Rory Best and Ulster, but in must-win matches, Leinster have their number.

And if the RDS was good then the Sportsground was even better again for drama. To beat Glasgow - still the most talented squad in the competition - back to back takes some doing.

This Connacht squad has really come of age; they now box clever. They still back themselves when in possession but do so on the basis of 'what we have we hold'.

It's so much more enjoyable and less taxing to play with the ball than without it - it sounds simplistic but that's the rationale behind Pat Lam's remarkable success.

Bundee Aki is the stand-out player but a host of others are not far behind: Tom McCartney, Ultan Dillane (a class act), Aly Muldowney, Muldoon (edging closer to that statue in Eyre Square), Niyi Adeolokun, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, AJ MacGinty. . .

Much like Reddan and Sexton the previous night, half-backs Marmion and MacGinty (who has come on leaps and bounds) were the driving force.

It took a different type of defence to see them home this time around as Glasgow, by comparison to the final-round game, were really up for it.

The visitors had the advantage of Rodney Ah You's absence for the final minutes.

This was role reversal to the previous meeting but, with the home fans upping the decibel level, the 16th man made a difference when it mattered most.

In the end justice was done as the best team (despite finishing second to Leinster on points difference) qualified for the final.

Now, to borrow from the Sawdoctors, to win just once!

Time for 'Destination final' to take a hike

On September 8 2015, Edinburgh was announced as the host city for the 2016 Pro12 final. It followed on from Belfast as only the second 'destination final' in the tournament's history.  

Alas for the second year running it has backfired, only this year with double the impact of the first. Last year it was Glasgow crossing the sea as Munster did it by road but this time it is a mass exodus by boat and plane by both finalists, with minimal notice and maximum exploitation.

Just two years in to a much more meaningful tournament and already it's time for a rethink of the 'destination final'.

According to Pro12 CEO Johnny Feehan, "we invited offers from all 12 clubs and their regions to host the final, with the tender from Edinburgh outstanding and unanimously agreed as the chosen venue".

I guess on the basis of Ireland last year, Scotland this and no doubt Wales next, we should be thanking our lucky stars we're not Treviso or Parma bound.

Simple solution: the final is played in the country of the team that finishes top of the table.

Irish Independent

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