Tony Ward: Please Joe, let us see a semblance of ambition beyond kick and chase
Published 30/01/2016 | 02:30
As the Six Nations comes firmly in to view the mind games are well and truly underway.
According to Eddie Jones the Scots are favourites to beat the English, while in Warren Gatland's world the Irish - who "don't play a lot of rugby" - are favoured to win the thing out.
Hopefully Guy Noves will stop short of lauding the mighty Italians before they run out at Stade de France or the tournament will lose any remaining sanity before a ball is kicked.
In truth nobody knows where anybody stands ahead of the first series of games. The French will beat the Italians, the Scots could indeed beat the English in Edinburgh and the Welsh could again do a number on us at the Aviva.
Although we enter the 2016 campaign for the third time under Joe Schmidt in search of a third Championship win on the bounce, I think it important to remind ourselves that in 2014 we took it on points difference from the English and last year again on points difference on that madcap but exhilarating last day, this time from the English and Welsh.
Not for a minute am I downplaying the achievement or the winning name indelibly etched on the trophy for 2014 and 2015. As much as any other participating nation have we experienced the bad years to appreciate the good.
So when Schmidt contributes his tuppence worth by way of "a top half finish would be good for us" you wonder how much of that is sincere, how much is covering his tail or more importantly how close to reality is he in his assessment.
There's probably a little bit of all three in that soundbite. There are long-established players missing through injury, through retirement, short on game-time and collectively downbeat after such a demoralising end to a World Cup that had promised so much.
It has also been a rough time for our provinces in Europe, although an escape from provincial to national involvement for the next six or so weeks could prove a Godsend in terms of its timing.
My views on the head coach are pretty well established. I believe him to be up there with the best there is about.
It doesn't mean I agree with every decision he makes, far from it, but in general there is a rationale and thought process with which most people, not least the players, can identify.
To that end we await his opening 23 (and I emphasise 23) with huge interest.
I disagree with him for not including Garry Ringrose and Matt Healy in his preliminary squad. A strong case could be made too for Tiernan O'Halloran's inclusion.
One area in which the head coach has been top man is in going with his gut - that instinctive feel when combining form with potential.
To that end I hope an early run for Stuart McCloskey is at the heart of his agenda.
In suggesting a top half finish would be "good for us" he is stating the obvious and I think most fair minded folk would accept that, but what we don't want to see is more of that game-plan than Gatland refers to cynically as being "incredibly effective".
Not that it was needed, but if the World Cup showed us one thing and nothing else, it is that you can still win rugby matches on earth. If there is a will to play it through the hands then there is a way.
Of course there is still a place for kicking sensibly into the stratosphere but as the sole means to winning rugby there has to be another way.
Please may we be spared Conor Murray box-kicking from every scrum or ruck in every conceivable position left or right. To borrow from my old college mate from way back when, Pat Spillane, it is rugby's version of "puke football" and while we may not have invented it nobody but nobody does it 'better' or more slavishly.
So if we are to finish in the top half, and I buy that, at least let us see a semblance of ambition beyond kick and chase.
What has impressed me most about McCloskey since coming to the fore at the tail end of last season is his ability to off-load in or behind the tackle. It is a fine skill inherent to his game beyond the ability to take it up to and over the gain-line given his more obvious physical attributes. He will be 24 this year and is more than ready.
I will return to the likely starting line up in the coming week but match fitness allowing I would like to see Robbie Henshaw alongside McCloskey in the centre, leaving it a straight call between Jared Payne and Rob Kearney at full-back.
Ulster are a different attacking entity with Payne in the last line. It worries me when Schmidt says: "I think Jared has had only two games (at full-back) so he's filled in pretty well, they've been solid games and he's moved into the midfield in both of them towards the end, so he hasn't really played a lot of anywhere."
Come on Joe, go with that instinctive feel, you can recognise the natural fit better than any. I will return to the specifics of that and more anon.
Ahead of the big kick-off this day week, the Six Nations have renewed their policy against the introduction of the bonus points system and more is the pity. According to CEO Johnny Feehan, who I know and greatly respect, "the issue against bonus points is over the imbalance of home matches. Some countries have three others have two".
So what? If you follow that logic then why hand out a Triple Crown, Grand Slam or Championship?
I do accept there could be a problem in relation to a team winning all five matches.
Again as articulated by former Old Wesley prop Feehan, "there was one year when the effect of bonus points would have meant that the team winning the Grand Slam would have finished second".
That was in 2002 when apparently England could have been champions ahead of the Grand Slam winning French.
Well there is a simple solution: irrespective of bonus points, any Grand Slam winner takes the title.
The world's top referee, Nigel Owens, reckons "there is no doubt bonus points would add to the spectacle".
In the meantime, to the detriment of the tournament, - despite last year's hugely enjoyable last day - the can is kicked down the road.