Wednesday 20 September 2017

Schmidt can't afford luxury of playing Nacewa at No 10

Isa Nacewa, here skipping by a tackle from Greg Laidlaw of Edinburgh,
needs to be moved away from the out-half role.
Isa Nacewa, here skipping by a tackle from Greg Laidlaw of Edinburgh, needs to be moved away from the out-half role.
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Home comforts proved decisive in an opening series of games which saw all six host sides register success as the revamped Magners League clicked into gear.

If it is a sign of things to come, then it augurs well for the league, given the nature of the winning performances in Treviso and Galway, in particular.

Glasgow and Ulster can take satisfaction, too, while newly-created Aironi provided enough evidence at Musgrave Park to suggest that a long overdue platform is finally being put in place for Italian rugby to kick on.

From an Irish perspective, three wins from four represented the best percentage return of the four competing nations.

Pride of place goes to Connacht, such was the conviction with which they put the Newport Gwent Dragons to the sword. For Eric Elwood and the new regime at the Sportsground, it was the dream start to their coaching tenure.

Rest assured, there will be as many bad days as good, particularly when the opposing top guns are on heavy alert, but what we witnessed on Saturday was a group of players digging for each other and for the coach.

Let me declare my interest here. I am an Elwood fan. As a player he wore his heart on his sleeve and led by deed and word, in that order.


He is limited in what he can achieve, given the financial restrictions relative to the other three provinces -- mind you, a paltry 1,300-plus spectators on the most perfect September evening at the Sportsground will surely strengthen the IRFU's conviction that they are on the most prudent and practical financial course.

Elwood is an experienced former player and indigenous Irish coach. Connacht rugby courses through his veins.

I have little doubt that when injury takes its inevitable toll -- even if, minus John Muldoon and Johnny O'Connor, it was pretty impressive on Saturday -- they will be on the receiving end of the occasional thumping.

But like Elwood, I believe in rugby from the heart, and with that essential ingredient in place, it is amazing how many physical and psychological obstacles can be overcome.

He has, too, in Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley four outstanding young talents increasingly making their mark.

Cronin and Keatley have already made the step up to the highest level and I suggest it is only a matter of time before tight-head Hagan and utility back Carr follow suit.

So much about Carr reminds me of a certain Simon Geoghegan from a bygone age.

Neither Elwood nor assistant coach Dan McFarland will be getting carried away with the comprehensive success over a limp and spiritless Dragons side in Galway but as the perfect springboard to the new season they could scarcely have asked for more.

By contrast, for Joe Schmidt and his newly assembled coaching team at Leinster it will have been a wet and miserable post-Glasgow return to the drawing board yesterday.

An opening 40 minutes at Firhill that promised so much, not least a domineering scrum, was followed by a collapse riddled with indiscipline and error.

It was the proverbial game of two halves in which a Scottish district back-boned by rookies took last year's beaten finalists to the cleaners in the second spell.

In the end the winning points went where they were most deserved. Leinster's new head coach will have been most perturbed by the manner of the second half cave-in.

Aided and abetted by John Fogarty's red mist, the manner in which experienced internationals disappeared was worrying in the extreme.

If Schmidt has learnt one thing early in his regime it is that a game-running pivot in the Jonny Sexton mould must be unearthed as a matter of urgency. Isa Nacewa, for all his versatility and open running, is a dangerous luxury at out-half that the '09 Heineken Cup champions simply cannot afford.

Whether it is Ian McKinley, Ian Madigan or Shaun Berne (as a stop-gap) the romantic notion of Nacewa at No 10 must be put to rest.

A talented footballer he most assuredly is but a string-puller, never.

Beyond that, Jamie Heaslip was good for an hour, as was Dominic Ryan in playing off the consistently efficient No 8. Sean O'Brien had a reasonable outing but is being given the captain's armband much too soon for his own or his team's immediate good.

Emergency tight-head Simon Shawe and centres Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley also did well but for the returning Luke Fitzgerald it was a game best forgotten.

However, unlike Nacewa at out-half, I believe Fitzgerald at full-back is an option well worth persevering. His best value for me is down the wide channel, whether it be at outside centre or in the last line of defence. The competition will also do Rob Kearney no end of good.

For Connacht, Munster and Ulster, it's on to Llanelli, Edinburgh and Aironi, respectively, with a spring in their step.

For Schmidt and Leinster, it's just one game gone and the heat is on, with quality-laden Cardiff next up at the RDS.

Schmidt will come good, of that I have no doubt, but it will never be as a matter of course.

Irish Independent

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