Thursday 21 September 2017

Tony Ward: Jordi Murphy is the man to counter French power game

Leinster back-row Jordi Murphy is likely to switch from No 8 to openside
Leinster back-row Jordi Murphy is likely to switch from No 8 to openside
Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There was a time when Ireland players lived in apprehension as the clash with France approached, but Les Bleus of the professional era are a very different animal entirely to everything Gallic that went before.

The game is constantly evolving, and in order to stay the pace, they too have made the conscious decision to go with the power flow.

The French still churn out players with pace and guile but, when it comes to Test level, they now go for power over panache almost every time. More is the pity, because it takes so much from what it was that once made this still great tribal competition the unquestioned jewel in the world crown.

I still think we are in for a humdinger this weekend, but France these days represent a different type of challenge entirely.

They still have the likes of Wesley Fofana and Yoann Huget to remind us of the way things used to be, but anyone expecting anything other than a power show to pave the way at the Aviva is living in cloud cuckoo land.

And, as for the 'bad traveller' myth, please can we put that to bed early? France have won four and drawn one of their last six visits to Dublin. And just for the record, we have won twice in Paris in over 40 years a trying.

Tommy O'Donnell scores a try during the Six Nations International Rugby Union match between Italy and Ireland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on February 7, 2015
Tommy O'Donnell scores a try during the Six Nations International Rugby Union match between Italy and Ireland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on February 7, 2015

The French can be temperamental, of that there is no doubt, but winning ugly is something that sits comfortably with them.

Critical

So expect Joe Schmidt to cut his cloth accordingly. I don't envisage much change in personnel and strategy from Rome, but there will be some critical re-structuring nonetheless.

On the assumption Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien don't make it to start, I expect the same tight five, with Mike Ross still in situ at tighthead.

Read more: Returning heroes won't take long to bed in to Ireland system, claims Murray

Iain Henderson is creeping ever closer to a leading part at lock but the Devin Toner/Paul O'Connell combination should remain in place for now.

Marty Moore, too, is unquestionably knocking on the door and come September may well take hold of that No 3 shirt, but on the basis of an Italian job well done Ross fully justified his 50 minutes as anchor.

If Rory Best is fit he will start and no problem there, but Sean Cronin, much like Moore and Henderson, is in the best of form to go from the off. On the downside, starting Cronin would reduce that element of impact as Richardt Strauss slowly but surely works his way through game time for Leinster back to the pitch of play his dynamic game was at prior to illness/injury.

Healy's lack of game-time (although if deemed match-fit he will make the bench) and O'Brien's hamstring injury will force Schmidt's hand.

Jamie Heaslip will surely be back at No 8, with Peter O'Mahony at blindside, making it a straight choice between Tommy O'Donnell and Jordi Murphy for O'Brien's openside slot, on the assumption the injury risk is too great with O'Brien.

I thought O'Donnell, quite apart from that swashbuckling try, put in a really impressive shift - it had a real "I'm ready" message about it.

But whether it's enough to ease him in ahead of Murphy, I'm not so sure. In a straight race for mobility from your openside, O'Donnell is the man, but I suspect the decision will hinge on defence at the gain-line, and Murphy could shade it given his marginal superiority in terms of physicality.

Either way it is a big call, the type Schmidt wants in every position.

Beyond that Connor Murray was again immense. He really has come of age as a leader at this level. His cool temperament in the white heat of battle is worth its weight in gold.

Johnny Sexton will be back alongside him and while I'll hold fire on declaring our half-backs the best in the world just yet, they are certainly right up there.

On the assumption Sexton is fully fit, Schmidt will opt for impact and versatility in his 10/12 cover, which means that Ian Madigan will be preferred to Ian Keatley on the bench.

That would make for a tough call on Keatley, who despite some understandable opening-quarter nerves did himself proud in Rome.

The entire three-quarter line should stay intact. Eoin Reddan could displace Isaac Boss as scrum-half cover if he is passed fit.

Gatland must apologise for infantile sulking

Warren Gatland has proved one of the most successful southern hemisphere coaches to come our way.

On a personal level, I found him reasonable to deal with, although requiring a degree of humouring from time to time. We all have our moments...

That said I find the widely reported 'silent treatment' apparently dished out to the Welsh players on the back of Friday's disappointing defeat to England, nauseating in the extreme.

It is the last thing players want, need or expect from a coach in whom they trust. Being upset at losing a game he so wanted to win is understandable but infantile sulking by the main man is most definitely not.

What players want is to be told where in the coach's opinion they went wrong and what they need to do to get it right for the Scots next up. The game may have changed in terms of technical preparation but emotions and player sensitivities have not.

If Gatland has a scintilla of sense, then an up-front apology is as good a place as any to begin preparation for Edinburgh.

Read more: Returning heroes won't take long to bed in to Ireland system, claims Murray

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