Sunday 20 January 2019

Tony Ward: Dangerous week ahead for provinces after serious wake-up call

21 January 2018; Munster head coach Johann van Graan during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 6 match between Munster and Castres at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
21 January 2018; Munster head coach Johann van Graan during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 4 Round 6 match between Munster and Castres at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

That was one sobering weekend. But, just as we're not going to lose the run of it with what was achieved the week before in London, neither will we lose the head on the back of what was a very disappointing few days for Irish rugby and there's little point in pretending otherwise.

Yes, the majority of the Grand Slam-winning squad were enjoying some well-deserved R&R, but for those who did play it wasn't a Guinness Pro14 weekend to live too long in the memory.

Credit Munster - courtesy of an incredibly strong scrum - for eventually coming out on top against a free-running Scarlets' side that attempted a repeat of what they delivered in the Aviva final last May.

However, for Connacht, Ulster and Leinster, in that order, it was a shocker and nothing short of it.

Once again this season, Connacht hit the self-destruct button, this time against Edinburgh, as they were still the better of two very average units on the night.

For Ulster - and they did have Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson back on board against Cardiff - it was yet another dismal return.

And however uncharacteristic the Leinster performance against the Ospreys, it marks everyone's card as to the critical task in reintegration given what lies ahead against Saracens in five days' time.

The physical re-imposition in training is the easy part; the big task is getting the individual and collective mindset down from the Grand Slam high and working it back up somewhere, anywhere close to what it was when round six in Europe reached its crescendo back in January.

A fortnight on from their matches against Top 14 opposition in Montpellier, Castres and Oyonnax and I would have had Leinster, Munster and Connacht red hot to take out Saracens, Toulon and Gloucester in the quarter-finals of their respective competitions but now there is in addition a massive psychological battle to be won.

Of course Leo Cullen, Johann van Graan, Kieran Keane and their coaching teams would have bought into the Six Nations achievement, not least for their provincial players involved but equally they would have been only too well aware of the challenge in getting the balance between Grand Slam celebration and EPCR aspiration.

With respect to the new Pro14 and everything it entails (and personally, as with many in the southern hemisphere, I hate the newly-imposed Conference system), this weekend represents the biggest in the Irish professional domestic season thus far.

Grand Slam deciders and European Rugby quarter-finals just a fortnight apart might as well be from different planets. There is no correlation whatsoever.

Think about it. How often in the past have we seen our international elite return from disappointment in the Six Nations window and indeed the Autumn Internationals too and resurrect themselves whether wearing white, blue, green or red within their provincial confines?

Point being, that this is a dangerous week for Irish rugby and specifically for the coaches charged with getting the reintegration right. I do not envy them their task.

Joe Schmidt's outstanding success has in a perverse sort of way added enormously to the intricacies of returning to 'normal' life at bread and butter level.

That said, 'sold out' signs in the Aviva, in Thomond Park and in the Sportsground ought bring a sense of urgent reality to those so privileged to have been part of that unprecedented journey at the highest level.

To be fair to Munster, they extricated themselves from a nightmare start in Limerick to deservedly take the points against the Scarlets in the end.

Early on they were particularly poor with the tactical kicking indiscriminate and loose. Had they put in place a plan to bamboozle the Welsh by playing to their undoubted running strengths they couldn't have done it any better! It was that bad.

It could be described as something of a scruffy win in the end but the set-piece - and scrum in particular - turned it around.

Credit too to the departing Robin Copeland for another 'CJ' type performance.

I am at a loss here as I see in Copeland a dynamic, Tadhg Beirne-type player that Munster can ill afford to lose irrespective of the back-row strength in reserve - and yes apart from Stander and Peter O'Mahony I appreciate the value of the injured Chris Cloete and (now) Tommy O'Donnell, plus the obvious potential of Jack O'Donoghue and Conor Oliver.

But Copeland has been under-used and undervalued for whatever reason down south. Munster's loss will unquestionably prove Connacht's gain.

A brilliant piece of work by Willie Ruane, Tim Allnutt and whoever else was involved in signing him, particularly given the approaching retirement of John Muldoon.

Irish Independent

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