Saturday 23 February 2019

Tony Ward: 'Club success gives Joe Schmidt some massive selection dilemmas in pivotal year'

Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Remember that saying of our youth - look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves? Well, while not suggesting that European rugby is in the penny place, given what lies ahead this year at international level, it's clear that through the provinces Irish rugby is looking after the pennies and everything else besides.

This was another massive weekend for Irish rugby, not just for the clean sweep of victories but for the manner of them. We are living through exceptional times in terms of rugby success.

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I was at a function on Saturday night at which the person most responsible for what we are now experiencing was the guest speaker. And the main point of reference to which Joe Schmidt referred was the quality of defending. The desire for two, sometimes three, players to stop the ball-carrier - and the closer the line the greater that desire.

In all three Champions Cup games, especially at the RDS and in Gloucester the night before, what we witnessed was suffocation rugby at its best.

It's not my thing but on that exceptional base of stifling teams without the ball the right to deliver some top-quality tries in the wider channels was earned.

Ulster will be disappointed at some of the scores they conceded but again in terms of resilience and that desire to win against top-quality opposition, the Kingspan was right up there.

Nothing has been won in terms of qualification, of course, but here we are going into the final round of Champions and Challenge Cup matches and with all four Irish teams as close as it gets to the last eight and crucially in control of their own destiny as the countdown to Round 6 begins.

Munster set the bar high at the Kingsholm with what was for me their most complete performance on the road (so much for away-game jitters) for the best part of a decade. Yes, it was that good and that complete in its execution from first minute to last.

Needless to say, the addition and presence of Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne (who has to be edging ever closer to an Ireland starting place), Joey Carbery and Chris Farrell makes for a different Munster entirely and on Friday's compelling evidence a Munster ready to compete for silverware again.

Yet good as Munster were, Leinster, given the quality of opposition and stretch on numbers, were arguably better again. Time to bask, not in either/or but in the best of both. We are at a phenomenal stage in our rugby-playing development and again, lest we forget, rugby is still only our fourth team sport.

Even minus a raft of players (but with Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Dan Leavy and Devin Toner set to return this week), Leinster were awesome in approach and delivery against a Toulouse side unbeaten since September.

To single out individuals from another 23-man performance is probably unfair. And yet from Cian Healy through Seán Cronin and the entire pack, they were immense. Garry Ringrose was named the man of the match but again on this occasion (as so often of late) Rhys Ruddock was leader supreme. Even with Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Seán O'Brien and the rest available, Ruddock on current form is almost irreplaceable.

He is also a captain who carries that mantle with infectious control. I'll not labour the point but the case for a rethink in that department, which I don't expect, still exists.

Beyond that, Ross Byrne and Ringrose in particular pulled the strings. He is only 23 but Ringrose was pure mule. He is another captain in waiting and, along with James Ryan, a natural in that capacity. His general play while individually brilliant is always selfless in its motivation. The issue for the remainder of 2019 at the highest level is who lines out wearing that 12 shirt alongside him. Mind you, one from Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell is a strong selection dilemma to have.

Ross Byrne as expected was coolness personified and while still behind Carbery (who was mesmeric in Gloucester) the case for inclusion on that flight to Japan grows.

As for the back three? Poor Joe. With Jacob Stockdale set in stone on the left (just how good was he against Racing?), Rob Kearney at full-back when fit, it's take one from Andrew Conway (superb in Gloucester), Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour (growing in full-back stature). Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney too.

What a weekend.

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