Tuesday 23 January 2018

O'Brien has proved he deserves place for autumn tests

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In the end, the Biarritz hurdle proved much too high.

Had Ulster succeeded, it would have made for the best European weekend ever for Irish rugby. Brian McLaughlin's side gave it their all but were outclassed by Gallic pace and flair. And even at this early stage, we can take it as read that last season's beaten finalists are guaranteed a big part in the knock-out phase again this year.

For Ulster all is not yet lost -- far from it -- but, realistically, back-to-back wins over Bath followed by revenge over Biarritz at Ravenhill in January is essential if they are to break what is now an 11-year hoodoo since they last qualified for the business end of the Heineken Cup .

But for Munster and Leinster it's onwards and upwards as our two premier provinces put big French and English clubs to the sword in very different ways. Munster lit the afterburners and racked up six tries in a comprehensive showing against aristocratic Toulon that was tres magnifique. Meanwhile, at Wembley, it was Leinster doing to Saracens what Munster have done to so many highly ranked teams over the years -- through measured and controlled discipline they came out with a tight victory.

It would be unfair to extol the virtues of one victory over the other, such was the quality and depth of each. Indeed, I heard the view expressed that Leinster would have been kicking themselves had they lost to Saracens, given their eight-point second-half lead. In other words, they underperformed and almost blew it -- but I beg to differ.

As against Harlequins at the Stoop on the way to that first Heineken Cup title in 2009, Saturday at Wembley was the day Leinster came of age in the post-Michael Cheika era. Jonathan Sexton once again proved his worth to the Leinster jersey, as his man-of-the-match performance dripped with class and composure.


Ronan O'Gara has been ticking over nicely for Munster but, on Saturday's convincing evidence, Sexton has nailed the out-half spot to face the Springboks on November 6. And that, for Declan Kidney and for Ireland, is a good thing as it will remove the media sideshow in terms of selection speculation for the all-important play-making role.

As for Sean O'Brien? I don't envy Kidney his task in putting together a back row. Balance will be central but, on current form alone, O'Brien, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip are individually and -- in the case of O'Brien and Heaslip for Leinster along with Shane Jennings -- collectively on fire.

Add to that Denis Leamy and David Wallace and it makes for some conundrum, but the dynamic, all-action O'Brien has unquestionably earned his right to a place -- primarily on current form, but also on the potential that he possesses. Could the Autumn Internationals -- specifically South Africa and New Zealand games -- be better timed? Bear in mind too, that Ferris is currently wearing No 7 and playing openside in a mighty effective Ulster back-row unit. For a big man, he can certainly shift and cover ground and both O'Brien and Ferris are mobile flankers who are ideally suited to the demands of the ever-evolving modern game.

The Leinster discipline in playing through 30 defensive phases without conceding a penalty was 'Munsteresque' in its game- closing execution. The all-singing, all-dancing stars are still there -- Rob Kearney, Isa Nacewa, Gordon D'Arcy and Shane Horgan were all outstanding -- but this was a game when getting down and dirty was paramount to getting the result. And they did.

Brendan Venter's latest rant -- amazing how it's always his team (in defeat of course) which are on the receiving end of match official injustice -- can only be described as sad. Chrisophe Berdos wasn't good but to suggest he favoured one side (Leinster) over the other is preposterous. Where I do share Venter's view? It's in his take on Berdos pinging the ball-carrying team rather than the tackler. It flies in the face of the overall trend to date, but it was equally galling for Joe Schmidt and Leinster.

As for Munster? Cometh the hour, cometh the performance, with 80 minutes of rugby intensity that was interlaced with moments and phases of sublime skill. From Wian du Preez to Paul Warwick, there were game-influencing performances everywhere. In an Irish context, Damien Varley, Tony Buckley (surely in at tight-head to face the Boks), Mick O'Driscoll, Denis Leamy, Peter Stringer and Johne Murphy all put their hands up.

O'Gara was also outstanding and although he's in a real dogfight with Sexton, he has reacted in the only positive way he knows how. On Saturday at Thomond Park, he yet again ran the show. But as good as he was, O'Driscoll as a leader was even more influential. One missed tackle for the opening try apart, he was the type of totemic forward figure that Keith Wood, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley and Paul O'Connell have been.

Warwick and Doug Howlett were also immense, while Murphy just grows in every game. As a utility back, his Test-worth has shot up in value as he can cover any position from 11 to 15. For the sake of his own Test career, he must guard against falling between too many positional stools but as cover on the bench he's top currency.

Indiscipline, of course, resulted in the two Toulon yellow cards (to George Smith and Felipe Contepomi) but they came as a result of non-stop intensity. Most encouragingly for Tony McGahan, changes off the bench made not a whit of difference for Toulon -- although Jonny Wilkinson's introduction did initiate a temporary respite of sorts.

On the down side, Jerry Flannery's latest calf twinge is a very real cause for concern, while Keith Earls still seems a bit yet from the level of match fitness required and, consequently, from the creative line-breaking influence of which he is capable. Certainly on this occasion he seemed off the pace.

One final point, isn't it most reassuring to see O'Connell (in Limerick) and Brian O'Driscoll (at Wembley) performing the duty of water boys? Of course they had a tactical input in terms of information distribution, but could you imagine Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba offering themselves for such team-bonding chores? It says as much about O'Connell and O'Driscoll -- our two globally recognised superstars -- as it does about Munster, Leinster and the game itself. Long may it continue so.

Irish Independent

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