Friday 23 June 2017

Tony Ward: Kearney brothers face tough task to displace young fliers

Dave and Rob Kearney
Dave and Rob Kearney
Leinster’s Rory O’Loughlin in action against Ulster’s Andrew Trimble. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The winner of the festive interpro segment? Without a doubt Munster. Nine points out of ten, including a win at the home of the Pro12 champions, is as generous as Santa could possibly have been, given the circumstances.

A squad good enough to go on and win it? Who knows, but one thing's for sure: slowly, with increasing consistency, Rassie Erasmus is putting a formidable challenge together.

I like what I see and hear from the former Springbok flanker. Yet again in his post-match summary after the win in Galway, he was up front and realistic in his assessment.

He acknowledged that the elements had made life even more difficult for a hugely decimated Connacht.

He also conceded that the scrum had creaked - somewhat out of character for the Jerry Flannery-inspired set-piece of late. You can bet your bottom euro the "something minor" to which he referred will be addressed forensically ahead of Saturday's trip to Paris.

The gods conspired to make possession rugby nigh-on impossible for a Connacht line-up which, given such scarce resources, largely depended on doing what they do best.

In the end Rhys Marshall's pushover try, allied to Ian Keatley's game management and point scoring opportunism made the difference in such horrendous handling conditions.

It was made for Munster, and with the increasingly influential Billy Holland calling the shots, any attempted deviation from the plan was an impossibility.

Erasmus has a headache in perming just two from Donnacha Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Dave Foley and Holland in the second-row.

For Connacht a place in the play-offs in defence of their title already appears a hurdle too high.

For Leinster coach Leo Cullen, as with Erasmus, the main satisfaction is in an ever-growing panel. The faith shown in Adam Byrne and Rory O'Loughlin is being rewarded.

Neither is yet the complete article, but with each passing game, confidence is growing.

When Fergus McFadden and the Kearney brothers return to full fitness, Cullen will have a problem as the two young wings in action against Ulster looked totally at ease at this level, and both have gas to burn.

For 45 minutes Leinster looked like what I believe them to be - the most complete of the Irish sides. They controlled the first half into the wind, executing two brilliantly rehearsed set-piece tries courtesy of O'Loughlin and Luke McGrath.

When they completed the St Michael's stranglehold as Ross Byrne slid through the most delicate grubber for his former schoolmate O'Loughlin to cross for a third try, it seemed a bonus-point fourth would be a formality.

Ulster will take little consolation in any suggestion of a second-half moral victory but from O'Loughlin's second touchdown to the final whistle there was only one team in it and it sure as hell wasn't wearing blue.

For Leinster, a four-point return out of a possible ten represents a meagre festive tally for a squad well equipped to go the whole way.

Still, there were other big performances, with Sean O'Brien in devastating ball-carrying form. Both second rows - particularly Hayden Triggs - had their moments, while Ross Byrne banked another important game.

In the centre the terminally underrated Noel Reid was electric but once again it was Garry Ringrose who delivered the most informative performance of all for Joe Schmidt. His defence was awesome and with Jared Payne ruled out, the Robbie Henshaw/Ringrose centre pairing is already set in stone for Ireland.

It is difficult not to feel for Ulster when they are missing Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Payne. They do not have the same quality of replacement.

To add to Les Kiss' frustration, what looked a powerful backline on paper was hugely inept when they did manage to free up ball in an impressive second-half forward onslaught.

Without Ruan Pienaar in his most influential position at No 9 and Paddy Jackson alongside they undeniably become predictable and, especially on this occasion, error-strewn.

To be fair I felt sorry for both Ulster half-backs this time out. For Paul Marshall because he has had so little game-time as run-on scrum-half and equally so Pienaar at No 10, given it is some three years since he was last selected to start there.

Kicking from out-half is a different art requiring different technique and different timing to kicking from scrum-half. Ulster were betwixt and between in the link zone and it didn't work.

On the plus side Charlie Piutau oozes danger whether close in or wide out.

Irish Independent

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