Tony Ward: Save the talk for the pitch
. . . and the pre-match private players meeting
Published 17/03/2012 | 08:52
Around this time every second year I relate a tale from my maiden trip to Twickenham as a player. It was in 1978 at the end of a similar St Patrick's Day/Cheltenham build-up to a match which, for reasons many and varied, carries such emotion for those of a green persuasion.
Our hotel base was in Kensington. On the night before the game we had the traditional eve-of-match meeting at which the best laid plans were declared by coach and captain. Noel Murphy was the coach and John Moloney the captain -- one never short of a word, the other measured and economic in articulation.
The aim of the exercise was to focus minds for what might lie ahead but more than anything to ensure backs and forwards were singing off the same sheet. Generally, they were tedious affairs but an essential evil. However, as the skipper was wrapping up the meeting he threw a closing question to the floor asking if anyone had anything to add before hitting the sack.
As you can imagine there was a tense silence in the room and then in his distinct Dungannon lilt Stewart McKinney spoke: "Aye John, I'd like to add one thing. Every time we come here (to Twickenham) they expect us to take to the field like a bunch of wild Paddys down from the hills hitting everything and anything in sight"... a loaded pause... "let's not disappoint!"
Not for a minute would I suggest the modern-day professional game is anything like the amateur equivalent from times past but the thrust of McKinney's rallying call has the same core relevance today as it did back then. This is our Bannockburn.
I am not advocating Rory Best and the rest come out spitting fire -- a lack of self-control, as we have learnt to our cost over the years, can be counterproductive -- but what I am saying is that however much we dress it up, this joust on Billy Williams' cabbage patch is different. So while there may be no Championship, no Grand Slam, and no Triple Crown on offer this afternoon there is history and tradition to a fixture hugely relevant to two very proud rugby playing nations.
Whereas in times past, given the respective resources, it was generally portrayed as David versus Goliath, professionalism has undoubtedly levelled the playing field substantially over the years. Our recent record against the old enemy is good. We have won seven of the last eight Six Nations encounters, including three out of four at Twickenham, so the trip to TW2 holds no fears.
I am at one with Declan Kidney (and Ronan Keating for that matter) that it should be a case of 'saying it best when saying nothing at all' in the lead-up to any big game. For that reason, and however innocent the context, I would have preferred not hearing in midweek of Stephen Ferris' take on the English being "bad losers" or Rob Kearney's "we must be better when we beat them so often" jibe. By all means think those things behind closed doors but don't express them in public, irrespective of the intention.
Players can deride the nasty media as being of little consequence but when the opposition casts a perceived aspersion it's 'pin up on the wall time'. To that end I would have preferred Ferris and Kearney to have kept their powder dry.
Whatever way the result falls at the final whistle will make it a successful campaign for the winning coach. For Kidney it would set up the upcoming three-Test series with the world champion All Blacks very nicely. For Stuart Lancaster it could copperfasten a new and well-deserved job. An Irish success this afternoon and we would be undefeated in Paris and London yet minus the title. An English win and it would be four out of five, including three on the road for the first time.
For those looking in it is difficult to comprehend why Lancaster is not already a shoo-in for the top coaching job in English rugby. All the early signs, even prior to this tournament, pointed in the right direction. Warm-weather training in the Algarve was replaced by mid-winter training in Leeds. Danny Care got short shrift for his unacceptable behaviour outside the England camp. Contrast Lancaster's take with what transpired under the previous regime in Queenstown and beyond back in the autumn.
I accept the premise that in a professional game it matters less and less where a person's birth cert is registered so long as they are the best man for the top job. However, where all things appear equal I go with indigenous talent every time.
I like Lancaster's emphasis on basic values. It is clear even in his short time at the helm that here is a head coach returning to fundamentals and paramount to that is pride in the shirt. You can take it as read that under Lancaster there will be no leaked quotes re bonuses lost or any such inane nonsense.
However, much as I would love to see the former 'A' team (Saxons) mentor seal the top deal and secure the management post, it would not be at the expense of another Irish win this afternoon.
It remains to be seen too quite how he handles Chris Ashton's ugly act of scoring -- describing it as a 'swallow dive' does the swallow world an undeserved wrong. I can't quite recall when the Six Nations last had the Ashton act of indulgence inflicted upon it and long may that continue.
Far from bringing character or colour to the tournament (as was suggested to me) it is a talented winger making a clown of himself. Should Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls or anyone else you care to name go down that pantomime route I will heap similar scorn you can be assured.
England versus Ireland on St Patrick's Day at the end of Cheltenham week is a special event that stands alone and whether it's for the Grand Slam, wooden spoon or (as today) no tangible prize at all, is irrelevant.
McKinney's 'leave nothing behind' message is as loaded now as it was back then. He may lead a different generation but today's skipper knows the subplot only too well. May Stewart's words ring loud.
Verdict: Ireland by six (25-19)
'MEN OF THE MATCHES' AWARD AN UTTER FARCE
Apparently there are 12 players in the running for Six Nations 'Player of the Championship'.
The sole criterion for entrance to this elite group is apparently winning a Man of the Match gong.
Now forgive me if I am missing something here but would it not be more accurate to describe this nonsense award as 'Man of the Men of the Matches 2012'.
Quite how the best and most consistent player over the course of five intensive matches can be deemed to come from a group which includes some who might play one or two games is beyond comprehension.
So far, there is no English player (any takers for Ben Morgan, Tom Croft or Owen Farrell) and no Wesley Fofana (consistently brilliant while scoring four tries in his first four Test appearances). Need we say more?
Last year was bad enough when (with respect) Andrea Masi was made Player of the Championship on the back of a massive public (Italian) vote.
Dare we suggest it getting more like Eurovision every year. What price Dustin?