Wednesday 24 May 2017

Tony Ward: Henshaw and Ringrose can be as good as D'Arcy and O'Driscoll

Leinster outside centre Garry Ringrose is tackled by Nic Groom of Northampton as Robbie Henshaw rushes to support him at the Aviva on Saturday night. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Leinster outside centre Garry Ringrose is tackled by Nic Groom of Northampton as Robbie Henshaw rushes to support him at the Aviva on Saturday night. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What a difference a year makes. Pardon the festive pun but this time last year our Champions Cup goose was already cooked, and so it came to pass, with no Irish representation in the knockout stages for the first time since 1998.

Twelve months on and all four are in with a shout, although only Leinster look guaranteed.

Connacht have a good chance if they can get nine points out of the remaining ten on offer (home to Zebre and away to Toulouse), as two teams nearly always qualify from the Pool including the token Italian presence. It is a joke that EPCR continues to operate in this farcical way.

Italian Rugby - and new Azzurri main man Conor O'Shea - would be far better served by having its two professional entities (Treviso being the other) competing much more meaningfully in the Challenge Cup.

But it is what it is, and with Wasps at home to Toulouse in the next round, opportunity knocks for Connacht to move to the top of this otherwise extremely competitive group by seeing off Zebre in the Sportsground.

On Saturday in Galway, the Westerners cast that magical spell that makes their style of rugby irresistible. Yes the referee did err in allowing play to continue in that dying phase but credit Dai Young and Wasps for accepting that even in this technologically proficient age, to err is human.

Jack Carty is an immensely talented young out-half but the ex-Marist player will be the first to hold up his hand and admit that his goalkicking has not been up to the requisite standard of late.

Swallow

One swallow has yet to make a Summer, but what a pressure kick to nail this historic victory on Saturday.

As a former kicker I can identify with the pressure, but Carty is a class act in the Robbie Henshaw/Tiernan O'Halloran 'made at home' mode. Expect his game to take off from here.

And I again highlight the input of John Muldoon. Mick McCarthy was once labelled 'Captain Fantastic'. Well for McCarthy then read Muldoon now. If Joe Schmidt wasn't coming down with top-quality back-rowers, Muldoon would be a worthy Ireland regular.

While his work ethic is infectious it is those subtle touches in or around the fringes that really make him special. He is to Connacht what Jamie Heaslip is to Leinster - and Heaslip is for me the most complete No 8 ever to play for Ireland.

On the back of Saturday's defeat at the death to Leicester, the Munster squad will be pressed harder than Santa's elves in the coming weeks.

A schedule that reads Leinster at home followed by Connacht, Racing and Glasgow away before entertaining ROG, Dan Carter and the rest of the aristocratic Parisiens represents some workload at plum pud time.

Crucially, their Champions Cup destiny is still in their own hands, with the Glasgow rematch at Scotstoun shaping into a winner takes all in Pool 1.

For a young, up-and-coming Leinster squad, it already looks like a case of mission accomplished. They are on fire. Montpellier losing to Castres has certainly helped but with the former at home followed by the latter away in the final two rounds, a high-ranking finish alongside Saracens and Clermont is eminently achievable.

What a fantastic seasonal fixture this has become, despite Northampton's indifference in selection. Nine tries to one is a poor reflection on this great competition and even more so on this still great club.

Still, you can only beat what's in front of you and that Leinster did to telling effect. Apart from that early intercept try, the Blues were in cruise control.

From the Schmidt perspective, and with Jared Payne out injured, the Henshaw/Garry Ringrose combination continues to thrive. Hard to believe that so soon after our greatest ever combination retired - Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll - we have a centre pairing potentially that good.

To that can I add the intelligence of Josh van der Flier. I emphasise 'intelligence' because while the foraging traits and body position at the breakdown are obvious and in many ways now standard, it is the supporting lines in attack that provide another dimension for the head coach to consider.

Whatever else, the selection of the backrow to face the Scots in the Six Nations opener borders on the impossible. Who do you leave out from Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander, Heaslip, Peter O'Mahony and Van der Flier when all are fit?

In a different sort of way to Michael Hooper or David Pocock, Van der Flier has an innate attacking sense of support and lines of running over and above the ordinary.

Schmidt will have plenty to keep him occupied over the Christmas period.

For Ulster, the zero return from Stade Marcel-Michelin turns the uphill battle for qualification into a mountain. Clermont appear home and hosed and while a ten point return from Exeter away and Bordeaux at home is achievable, even that might not be enough to see Les Kiss' men through.

On the plus side for Ireland Tommy Bowe is making strides in the right direction for an international return. Add in the exciting form of Adam Byrne, Darren Sweetnam and Matt Healy and the list of wing possibilities grows by the week.

Put it all together and it looks like Leinster all but guaranteed, Munster depending on the shoot-out in Glasgow, Connacht on winning in Toulouse and Ulster relying on results elsewhere.

Public 'cheated' by weakened saints line-up

"I went to see Leinster v Northampton at the Aviva. I am an avid rugby follower, my kids grew up watching by my side. Although I never had access to tickets for the big European games, financially I could not justify it.

"So it was with great excitement that I headed to the game last night with my two grown up girls. I spent €99 for three tickets (cheapest tickets I could get). Hard for me to justify paying this to any sporting event.

"I want to register my disappointment that Northampton, a great club with a great tradition, should field a weakened team and in my opinion disrespect the viewing public, the competition and their opponents.

"They may have been resting players for 'more important games' but the game of rugby suffered and I can't help but feel I have been cheated.

"I paid to see two great clubs go head to head. I witnessed a run-out for Leinster against Northampton squad players. Not good enough! It will take a lot of slick marketing to make me part with €99 again."

I received that message from an upset fan. I echo every sentiment.

Irish Independent

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