Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tony Ward: Humility and grace is key to milestone wins for provinces – we can conquer Europe again

'Peter O’Mahony was simply immense, the epitome of the Munster warrior that was Paul O’Connell, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley and leaders of that ilk before him.' Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
'Peter O’Mahony was simply immense, the epitome of the Munster warrior that was Paul O’Connell, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley and leaders of that ilk before him.' Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We'll try not get too carried away, but it's difficult. This wasn't another good weekend for Irish rugby, it was a great one and let nobody tell you otherwise.

Bear in mind that it wasn't too long ago that through the restructuring of European Rugby (ERC to EPCR), Celtic Rugby (Pro 12) was, we were led to believe, dead and buried.

For those of us who argued otherwise - based on the fundamental principle of having solid underage structures in place - we've gone full circle. Make no mistake, we will again.

Yes, the money-mad clubs with madcap financiers will continue to buy all around them and no doubt they will again have their day, but then so too will we - albeit by a more viable route.

We have still won nothing, with Racing and Scarlets presenting two massive hurdles to be overcome, and even at this distance it will take two more extraordinary performances if either of our two premier provinces are to make it through to Bilbao for a possible seventh Irish Champions Cup success on May 12.

For now let's just control the gallop and concentrate on what was an extraordinary couple of days, even by recent Grand Slam standards.

My genuine concern ahead of these two massive games was psychological. What would the Six Nations success take from those Munster and Leinster players so central to their respective provinces? Not for a minute was it a case of 'we of little faith', just the reality of pitching individual performance at the same consistent level of expectation and delivery.

What we witnessed first in Thomond Park and then at the Aviva was our top players - specifically our elite Grand Slammers - giving everything to the cause whether red or blue.

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And here I think it essential we must acknowledge the roles played by Johann van Graan, Jerry Flannery, Felix Jones, Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster, Girvan Dempsey and John Fogarty, plus each and every other member of background management involved.

Irish rugby is in a good place, with head coaches Cullen and Van Graan epitomising the type of humility essential to the collective when winning.

But back to the specifics.

In the end it took a spark of individual brilliance from a still underrated player to take Munster through the inevitable war of attrition against Toulon.

And, while I think of it, credit Chris Ashton for scoring his try with a touch of decency. But if Ashton's try (forward pass apart) was good, Andrew Conway's was even better. Long may the game have room for the Keith Earls, the Jordan Larmours, the Joey Carberys and the Conways of this world.

Peter O'Mahony was simply immense, the epitome of the Munster warrior that was Paul O'Connell, Mick Galwey, Anthony Foley and leaders of that ilk before him. So too Conor Murray, Jack O'Donoghue, Rory Scannell and indeed all six front row forwards who took the field.

O'Mahony was a most deserving Man of the Match, although I have to say that Conway's all-round play in defence and attack prior to that magical moment was at least equal, if not better. Indeed, his take of Francois Trinh-Duc's attempted touch clearance was up there with Earls' overhead catch against the French in the build-up to 'that' drop goal in Paris.

Credit Ian Keatley, too, for the type of ROG-like performance it was essential he delivered. And he did.

As for Leinster, meanwhile, fashioned a third-quarter performance of rugby perfection made in heaven against the reigning European Champions.

This was Test rugby in all but name and here again the big players delivered the big performances on the biggest stage (a sold out Aviva) and the rest followed.

For O'Mahony in Limerick, read Dan Leavy in Dublin. When he hits his peak he is going to be some player. His lines of running, allied to Luke McGrath's reading of those lines, were amazing.

Defence wins matches and certainly the dogged stuff close to the line before the break paved the way for what followed. I'm not sure Leinster deserved to be in front, but in the 20 minutes after the interval the team with the potential to be the best in Europe delivered a performance befitting that status.

They were brilliant to a man, but Tadhg Furlong (what a player), James Ryan (the mind boggles as to how good he might be when he matures), Leavy, McGrath, Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa (selflessness personified), Garry Ringrose and James Lowe were particularly outstanding. And with Jamie Heaslip now retired and Jack Conan laid low, just how good was Jordi Murphy?

As with Robin Copeland leaving Munster for pastures new in Connacht, it will be Ulster, under a new coaching regime, who will benefit when the former Blackrock man heads north.

It is the right move at the right time and as yesterday's tour de force showed, there will be many more appearances in green ahead for this extremely adaptable player.

It is still early April and no medals have been given out, but what a prospect in three weeks time when the Donnacha Ryan inspired Racing entertain Munster in Bordeaux (a French venue with much fondness for those in red), with Leinster set to run out before another capacity crowd in the Aviva when Munster-bound Tadhg Beirne and Scarlets come to town.

Even at this distance they represent matches that could so easily swing either way.

That said, it was the positive mindset - individual and collective - that marked these Champions Cup quarter-finals as real milestones for me.

We're winning with grace and learning with humility as we go.

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