Wednesday 18 October 2017

Tony Ward: Outstanding Jack Conan must be first choice for club and country

While Heaslip and Stander are still valuable assets, it's time to reward rising talent with permanent spot in the back-row

Jack Conan has huge claims for a place in Ireland back-row for November Series. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jack Conan has huge claims for a place in Ireland back-row for November Series. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Just two weeks in and while I have little doubt a different dimension to the South African challenge will emerge over the course of the 21-match marathon, particularly on home soil, the reality is of a PRO8 and the other six.

In Conference A it's Munster, Glasgow, Connacht and the Ospreys with Munster and the Warriors the two most likely while in Conference B it's the Scarlets and Leinster along with Ulster and Edinburgh, all four unbeaten thus far.

A lot of water will flow between now and May with the international windows in November and February/March set to benefit some of the weaker sides.

From an Irish perspective we're up and running with Connacht getting back to winning ways and Ulster, though less than impressive in Treviso, holding on for a two-from-two start.

Much will change as the new coaching regimes - Les Kiss apart - settle in at the Kingspan and Sportsground.

God only knows what lies ahead for Munster in terms of the coaching order but on the field, albeit against weak opposition in the opening games, they have delivered the type of start any coach would crave.

Substance

In terms of substance allied to expectation I would put Leinster and Munster ahead of Ulster and Connacht and probably in that order, although there could be little in it between north and west.

In European terms it looks like both Scottish Districts, all four Irish provinces and two of the Welsh regions (Scarlets and Ospreys) will be competing for the seven precious Champions Cup slots for 2018/19.

Hopefully that will change and at least one from the Dragons, the Blues, Treviso and Zebre will rattle a cage or two but all early evidence points to more of the same and as you were whether PRO12 or PRO14, a 12-team league or two conferences of seven.

While Munster, like Leinster, have claimed a maximum 10 points there is a strength in depth about Leo Cullen's boys in blue that bears comparison with Jim Gavin's football equivalent across the city.

The competition within Gavin's squad has driven Dublin football to new heights. The parallel with what Cullen is developing at Leinster is very real.

Whether it's enough to take them back to the top of the European tree only time will tell but if I was a betting man I would be putting my money where my mouth is.

On Friday at the RDS, they took maximum points against what was once the greatest club in world rugby. The Cardiff Blues are a shadow of their former selves yet a Leinster side sprinkled with emerging talent banked a five-point return which the performance didn't deserve.

It wasn't that Cardiff were anything special but Leinster, even below-par, hit the objective and in the end were pulling up.

For over an hour they struggled to break the Cardiff defensive stranglehold.

It was seven minutes into the final quarter before a typical Sean Cronin opportunist try marked the turning point and took Leinster out from seven to 14 (23-9).

There is still a question mark over the Limerick man's line-out throwing but I seem to remember the same being said about Keith Wood and about every other player to wear the green No 2 shirt in between.

Cronin, at 31, still has so much to offer and in broken play there is no one quicker or more dynamic. Even if it is off the bench he would be in my Ireland squad every time.

I like the pragmatist in Cullen and afterwards he called it spot on when describing the collective performance as "poor".

That said there were positives. Individually, Barry Daly in terms of impact, Jordan Larmour on limited opportunity, Luke McGrath, Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Jack Conan stood out.

Conan's time is here and with the greatest of respect to Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander, Conan should be packing down in the middle of the Irish back-row against the Springboks and Pumas come November.

Picking

Indeed in some ways picking the back-row at Leinster is going to be more difficult than doing so for Ireland.

At this distance it would be Stander at No 6, Sean O'Brien 7 and Conan at 8 for me in green.

Yet for Leinster, how do you pick O'Brien ahead of Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier as an out-and-out seven.

And what of Rhys Ruddock or Jordi Murphy. Dare we mention Max Deegan?

Bernard Jackman has had a cut at his squad at the Dragons for lack of impact off the bench.

Compare and contrast that with the arrival of Ed Byrne, Cronin and Andrew Porter (looking increasingly at ease at tighthead) for Healy, James Tracy and Michael Bent, not to mention Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Tadgh Furlong still to play.

It was difficult to argue with Conan's nomination as man of the match although I thought Luke McGrath was right there alongside in this increasingly influential little and large eight/nine show.

It is still early days but with three Irish sides unbeaten and all four in the top seven Irish eyes could be forgiven for having a hint of a smile.

Irish Independent

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