Sport

Thursday 21 September 2017

Tony Ward: Shameless defence of Pape will leave game's reputation on its knees

Jamie Heaslip is helped off the field after being kneed in the back by Pascal Pape
Jamie Heaslip is helped off the field after being kneed in the back by Pascal Pape
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The fall-out from Pascal Pape's Aviva horror show has damaged the game in so many ways, and Philippe Saint-Andre has been making things worse, with not a moral scruple in evidence.

The France coach has moaned that his second-row's 10-week ban for kneeing Jamie Heaslip in the back is "very, very severe".

Pape's deliberate act left Heaslip with three fractured vertebrae, almost certainly ending the Ireland No 8's Six Nations campaign and even threatening the career of arguably the most crucial piece in Joe Schmidt's pack.

Many people question Heaslip's contribution, complaining that he is not a barnstorming ball-carrier in the mould of Billy Vunipola, but his worth as the most complete No 8 ever to play for Ireland will only be fully appreciated when he is gone for good.

And it is no thanks to Pape that we are not already talking in such pessimistic terms now.

Saint-Andre continues to insist that Pape's knee was accidental, saying: "Pascal and the lawyers from the Federation and Stade Francais will reflect on whether to appeal.

"As a coach one is eager to tell him to appeal but if it is to risk a heavier punishment. . . that is really for the club to decide as it is Stade Francais who pay his wages."

I hope Pape does take that risk because if there is a scintilla of justice in the corridors of World Rugby, then this high-profile act of malicious thuggery will attract a much longer ban.

As it stands, England are the main beneficiaries, with Heaslip absent when the Chariot hits Dublin and Pape unavailable when Les Bleus visit Twickenham on the final day of the Six Nations.

The nature of the game at the highest level is doing enough damage to rugby at this point in time without ill-judged comments making things worse. If an appeal is lodged and then upheld, it would be a huge blow to the sport's standing.

As for Schmidt, the dilemma is who to start at No 8 against England?

The Ireland coach will not be making wholesale changes - Sunday's game will be similar to the French match, although the English are a more complete team with a much smarter driving force in Stuart Lancaster.

We may be playing extremely limited rugby, taking little risk in terms of off-loading or pushing the pass, but we are winning, and winning with conviction in how we are going about it.

So I'd expect 14 of the same 15 to start, with Jordi Murphy coming in for Heaslip.

The only decisions to cause even a hesitation might concern both props, where there is little to choose between Jack McGrath and Cian Healy (lack of game-time for the latter is still the key concern) at loosehead and between Mike Ross and the ever-improving Marty Moore at tighthead.

I feel that the best way to get the best out of the quartet is to leave well enough alone - expect a front-row revamp on the hour.

Iain Henderson's turn will come and sooner rather than later but on the basis the lineout ain't broke, the Devin Toner/Paul O'Connell second-row combination has a set-in-stone look about it.

In the back-row Peter O'Mahony will start at No 6, with I suggest Sean O'Brien and Murphy sharing No 7 and No 8 duties - Murphy generally packing down at the base of the scrum, but with the facility of switching O'Brien should the appropriate attacking position arise.

Despite Luke Fitzgerald's consistent good form at centre or wing, I would leave Simon Zebo on the left in an unchanged backline.

There will be one change of necessity on the bench. I would go with Tommy O'Donnell, although Robbie Diack's versatility is an asset.

A little more thought should go into the replacement backs, where Ian Madigan's inclusion is a certainty.

Eoin Reddan completed a successful hour for Leinster against Zebre, and I would recall him in place of Isaac Boss, given his ability to alter the tempo and make an impact off the bench in case of mid-match crisis, although Boss is excellent at closing out a game.

The utility back too is a difficult call given Felix Jones' consistency and the faith Schmidt so clearly places in his squad presence, but I would have Fitzgerald.

Sunday kick-offs show contempt for fans

The quality of entertainment against the French may have been poor but one thing the 51,200 in the Aviva Stadium could not complain about was atmosphere.

That was not down to the structure of the new Lansdowne Road stadium - it was the timing of the fixture: 5.0 on a Saturday afternoon is an ideal kick-off.

Contrast that with what lies ahead for the possible Grand Slam decider against England this weekend - a 3.0 Sunday kick-off.

It is of course all about the TV audience. To hell with those die-hard fans, from England in particular and all over Ireland (and yes I know Gaelic games supporters have done so since the year dot) travelling to Dublin on a Sunday.

I'm wasting my breath, I know, but Friday evening/Saturday Six Nations rugby still has that traditional appeal and is fair to travelling fans.

Sunday fare, by contrast, is for the couch potato.

Of course TV companies emphatically call the tune. And it's some song.

Irish Independent

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