Thursday 22 March 2018

Tony Ward: A potentially brilliant Irish midfield is about to be unleashed

South Africa will be determined to lay down marker in most demanding game of November series

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki arrive at Ireland training on Thursday to work on the centre partnership that proved so successful for Connacht. Photo: Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki arrive at Ireland training on Thursday to work on the centre partnership that proved so successful for Connacht. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

My first up-close experience of South African rugby was on the Lions tour of that country in 1980. It was an eye-opener in so many ways.

The most immediate impression was of the absolute fanaticism for the game - amongst the ruling minority I might add - but this observer was learning as he went.

The second and more relevant detail at the time of the tour, from a pure playing perspective, was the natural Afrikaner size allied to the physicality and brutishness of contact play, but also backed by an almost Gallic laissez-faire desire to run ball if and when it went beyond the number ten. And it wasn't just Naas Botha but every out-half, whether it was midweek or Saturday matches, could kick the leather off the ball if so desired.

In a rugby-playing context, despite the ever-growing societal cancer that was Apartheid at the time, they were pretty much the complete article.

Up there alongside New Zealand for sure, leaving Australia and all five of the northern hemisphere nations chasing with a fair bit of catching-up to do.

For a myriad reasons, the game going open in the immediate aftermath of the Rainbow Nation reaching the Holy Grail (think of that iconic 1995 image of an elated President Nelson Mandela handing the Webb Ellis trophy to a euphoric but equally humble Springboks skipper Francois Pienaar), rugby in South Africa - despite a second World Cup win in 2007 - has never managed to engender the same degree of fear and trepidation among rival nations.

And we are not talking about any lack of respect. Facing down the Springboks is second only to the All Blacks in almost every way. But rugby on the Horn of Africa has lost its aura as defeats to Japan in 2015, to Italy and to Ireland in 2016 and - whisper it - that 57-point drubbing inflicted by New Zealand in Albany earlier in this year's Rugby Championship represented a new and particularly hurtful low.

I feel for Allister Coetzee who strikes me as a decent and hard-working rugby man. In diplomatic terms, he has been boxing clever this week by way of a charm offensive, describing the Irish as "the All Blacks of Europe". We are many things, Allister, but even with a head coach at least on a par with Steve Hansen, the European ABs we ain't. Not even close.

Leaving the next two World Cups aside - 2019, where we may meet in the quarter-final, and 2023 for which we are currently competing vigorously off the field - this is a huge game for both countries. For South Africa, it has been earmarked as the defining game in their Test season given back-to-back draws with the Wallabies and a one-point defeat to New Zealand last time out.

From an Irish perspective, we wish the Guinness Autumn schedule had been kinder and that it was Fiji, followed by Argentina culminating in the Springboks as the final and most demanding of the three ahead of the post-Christmas Six Nations. But it is what it is, and to that end Joe Schmidt has selected his best available and as close as doesn't matter to the most formidable line-up at this point in time.

The eye-catching selection is, of course, that of Bundee Aki to play his first game at this level. The residency rule stands and Aki is in on merit. Schmidt has exercised the right to select a hugely influential player since he arrived on these shores. He is now on board according to the rules set out by the governing body and, as with CJ Stander, Jared Payne, Richardt Strauss and every other in a similar position, we wish him nothing but the very best on his maiden voyage for his chosen country.

Based on form and influence at the Sportsground since his arrival, Aki could prove a godsend for Schmidt. Even when Payne and Garry Ringrose are back fit and firing, the New Zealand-born centre offers something different to the other three (Robbie Henshaw included). Stuart McCloskey too is a different type of player to Aki entirely.

The fact that Henshaw and Aki know each other's game inside out augurs well in terms of hitting the ground running later today. And while Henshaw will wear 13 and the new cap 12 (generally their positions for Connacht), I will be bitterly disappointed if either player or the head coach for that matter attaches a significance to those numbers. They are not straitjackets and as both have proved, time and again, they can shift and interchange seamlessly.

Show me a centre pairing with the facility to play left and right, first or second, inside or outside, and I'll show you a team on the move.

Our best ever pairing - Gordon D'Arcy (a former full-back) and Brian O'Driscoll - came together by accident (due in the main to Gary Ella) rather than by design. Prior to that it was Michael Kiernan and Brendan Mullin lighting the way. The ex-Connacht Pro12-winning combination have yet to line out together at the highest level, but gut instinct suggests a potentially brilliant Irish midfield is about to be unleashed and with the outstanding Ringrose set to come back into the Six Nations mix .

Today's general principle holds that the inside centre is the playmaker and the outside the speed merchant, whether with or without the ball. It is a generally accepted premise to which I do not adhere. Were I Schmidt I would be giving Aki and Henshaw licence to interchange and play the opposition as they see it and not through the eyes of someone sitting in the stand.

That is not a criticism of Schmidt and while I suspect a licence to roam may not materialise today, it is a trust that has to develop - ideally over these three games.

Beyond that, injury and form applying, I find it difficult to question any selection including that of Rob Kearney in the last line. Were Simon Zebo still on board or one of Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery or Tiernan O'Halloran the complete article for a Test like today, I would take issue with selecting a player returning from injury and short on game-time. But Kearney, while not a 'third centre' in terms of entering the line and putting his wing men away, is an unequivocal leader along with both half-backs, Rory Best and Peter O'Mahony in this maturing Ireland side.

He is a goalkeeping full-back but one with the natural inkling to counter and bring those in front from an opposition bomb back on side and into the game. He has too that added ingredient called presence and while he was at fault by way of a couple of missed tackles in the Chicago All Blacks game this time last year, his overall role in commanding the air and the ground from the back was central to that historic win.

Eben Etzebeth v Iain Henderson, Francois Louw on CJ, Tendai 'The Beast' v Tadhg 'the Yellow Belly' (a misnomer if ever there was one), Pieter Steph du Toit on Seánie the Tank, take your pick. It may border on nasty but whatever else a 'friendly' international this is not.

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