Saturday 20 July 2019

O'Brien and Healy can give Leinster forward momentum to sink Bath

Sean O'Brien arrives for squad training
Sean O'Brien arrives for squad training
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If intensity in training is anything to go by then Bath are going to need to be at their best to put one over on Leinster this afternoon. Watching the three-time champions giving it the 'full monty' in Bray during the week smacked of a group fully in tune with the 'sink or swim' element to this quarter-final.

Intensity with minimal error is of course the aspiration of every coach worth his salt in every session he takes, but with Leinster this past week there has been an added edge.

Whether enough to take them on, most likely to Toulon, we will know shortly but certainly in terms of preparation the omens are good. On the basis a league table never lies, they have earned the right to this home quarter-final but given the remarkable nature of that final pool game at Wasps, they could just as easily been on the road to Toulon a game early and facing a different kettle of poisson entirely.

With over 40,000 fans expected to hit the Aviva, this has all the makings of a tribal thriller. Yes they have been inconsistent all season, but there have been substantial reasons in terms of national involvement as well as the common bugbear called injury. Take out the unfortunate Rhys Ruddock and they are operating pretty close to full strength and with the two key pieces in the desired modus operandi, Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien, back in situ.


The difference these two make in terms of ball-carrying, breaking the gainline, committing numbers to the tackle and, more than anything, providing forward momentum is incalculable. Jordi Murphy, while stating the obvious this week, called it spot-on when declaring the need to hit the ground running. He, like so many others, has been missing from the bread and butter set-up for the best part of eight weeks.

It is the price Leinster have had to pay for the success of recent seasons with so many of their players now central to the Ireland camp. That has placed different demands on Matt O'Connor and here he has been given a bum wrap. I, too, would love to see Leinster winning in that all-embracing style, which was their trademark through that winning run of three European titles in four outstanding years between 2009 and 2012.

They are well capable of getting back there, but sometimes it is a case of needs must and this, given the circumstances, is a 'needs must' day. Mike Ford has put together a class unit at the Recreation Ground. There is a nice mix between power and panache with son George, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson central to that evolution - for club and country.

O'Connor has had a tough hand with which to play and while I support his stance on the over protection of elite players, equally I resent his operation of that principle at the other end. Let me be more specific.

The release of players for and from provincial duty must apply at both ends. In other words if an O'Brien (who hasn't started a game for Leinster since the opening day of the season) or a Jamie Heaslip (to name but two) is to be released for provincial duty - and I'm in no doubt they should - then equally those club-aligned players on the periphery of the squad (outside the match-day 23) should be encouraged to play for their clubs.

Using last weekend as a case in point, Luke McGrath and Daragh Fanning were refused release despite requests from UCD and St Mary's. No doubt there were others, but with both Dublin clubs involved in scraps for play-off /relegation (such has been the nature of Division 1A this season), a little bit of sensitivity beyond a blank 'no' would have been appropriate.

Bear in mind that for some of these players there has been little or no game-time for the best part of six weeks now. Where is the logic in that?

If O'Connor is prepared to plead his case as victim to an unfair arrangement at the top end, then equally should he be far more understanding of the ongoing problems for a club game still very much the chief casualty of rugby going open. It is unfair and does little for the pursuit of harmony in working relations between club and province going forward.

You might remember that I made reference in the aftermath of Six Nations 'Super Saturday' to the uncomfortable feeling when watching Courtney Lawes all but dismantle French out-half Jules Plisson with a so-called all-or-nothing tackle. As I said at the time, while technically within the laws, it was mean-spirited and nasty.

In a similar vein, though a different tackle scenario, Wasps' forward Nathan Hughes has been banned for three weeks by an RFU Disciplinary Panel after an incident that led to Northampton and Wales winger George North being knocked unconscious.

It is one of my personal bugbears, the late so called attempted tackle on a player as he is in the act of scoring. I remember well Gordon D'Arcy returning from France in a wheelchair following a similar incident in a European match some years ago. Back then, there was no follow on.

By contrast Hughes has been found guilty of striking North without intent (something which you would struggle to say about Lawes when hitting Plisson) on the side of the head with the knee and/or shin. It was, at best, reckless.

In shipping a red card plus this three-week suspension, his club have opted to appeal. That is understandable given the absence of malicious intent (we think), but as a lesson at a relatively embryonic stage in his career (he is 23), whereby he will thread a lot more wearily in future, the punishment is fully justified.

I'm not sure Lawes is anywhere near that stage yet.

Crying need for All-Ireland Schools Cup

Back in time, we used to have the Bateman Cup whereby the four provincial cup winners met to decide the number one club in the country for that season.

It has been reintroduced by the IRFU, albeit at a much lesser level of intensity since 2006. The principle is good and one I have long felt should be applied to schools.

Last week, for example, in Galway we had the latest playing of the Kate Russell All-Ireland Hockey Cup for girls which was won by Crescent CC. It was a fantastic few days for everyone involved and certainly one the girls central to its playing will never forget.

With the Schools Cups in all four provinces generally done and dusted by March 17, there is no reason in the wide world - none whatsoever - why the four Cup winners cannot come together whether in Limerick, Cork, Galway, Athlone, Belfast, Dublin, wherever to decide the top rugby playing school for that year.

On April 28, Roscrea (Leinster winners for the very first time) will meet Munster winners Rockwell in a charity game in aid of the Hope Foundation and Aidlink at Cashel RFC. One small but significant step.

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