Monday 16 December 2019

Tony Ward: Murray has all attributes to take on Munster captaincy

Munster's Conor Murray during the Munster squad Captain's Run
Munster's Conor Murray during the Munster squad Captain's Run
Mark McCall, Saracens head coach
Alex Goode of Saracens clears the ball during the Heineken Cup Semi-Final match between Saracens and ASM Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham Stadium
Mako Vunipola of Saracens is tackled by Benjamin Kayser
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So now we know, it will be Saracens and Toulon contesting the 19th and last Heineken Cup final. The May 24 showdown at the Millennium Stadium will see the French superstars seek to become only the third side (after Leicester in 2002 and Leinster in 2012) to make it back-to-back wins in the greatest club tournament on the planet.

For Saracens, the challenge is to become the 11th club (and fifth from England) to lift rugby's most coveted trophy below Test level. The north London club have also become the 17th side to reach the final.

The tournament has come a long way since its first season, when Toulouse beat Cardiff in the final, and so too have standards and expectations.

The fear is – and with some justification – that it may become a bigger and more valuable plaything for those wealthy individuals already heavily involved financially.

The Champions Cup, beginning in just six months' time, is guaranteed to attract new investment and increasing financial returns. The challenge for Irish rugby is to keep up with the economic pace, given the already lopsided playing pitch tilted in the Anglo/French favour.

I do not accept that this represents the end to Ireland's success (six wins), but what is for sure is that an even greater financial commitment in order to compete meaningfully will be required.


As in football, money does not guarantee success but it sure makes life easier along the way.

I am loath to knock the Mourad Boudjellals and Nigel Wrays of this world. I know neither the Toulon owner nor his Saracens counterpart, but I suspect that both are avid rugby fans. I admire both for their commitment to the game.

I begrudge neither man their success in making it through to this year's final, despite the disappointment of no Irish side making it through.

We are set for a Cardiff showdown that could swing either way depending on which highly resourced unit turns up in better psychological and physical nick on the day.

Following the wonder-show we witnessed at Twickenham when Sarries blew Clermont Auvergne apart, it's hard to say who is favourites.

Saracens weren't just good in destroying Clermont, they were awesome.

And, lest anyone forgets, they are coached by former Ulster and Ireland centre Mark McCall. 'Small' is one of the really good guys, and a players' coach if ever there was one.

He has a fundamental ability to get on with people and trusts in those around him. He has worked hard to get where he is now on the coaching ladder and, much like Conor O'Shea, Bernard Jackman and Mikey Prendergast, has not been afraid to exit the Irish bubble to work at and improve his trade.

In thumping Clermont, although aided and abetted by a poor Nigel Owens decision (when awarding a penalty try against Brock James), McCall's side produced what was arguably the most complete performance at this stage of the competition ever.

From No 1 Mako Vunipola to No 15 Alex Goode, they were clinical in defence and in attack.

And, much though it pains me to acknowledge it, even Mr Arrogance himself, Chris Ashton, was outstanding in everything he did right down to the 'normal' manner in which he crossed for his brace of scores in the six-try rout.

I would like to think that McCall has had a word or two in his ear along the way, leaving England coach Stuart Lancaster watching the impressive outcome with more than a passing interest.

Simon Zebo was good in Marseille on Sunday. Quite apart from his well-taken try – with Conor Murray the instigator – his defence was top-notch while his work rate and general involvement was back to where it needs to be if he is to challenge again for the most competitive area on the Irish team.

Beyond that, James Coughlan was particularly good and, in the absence of Peter O'Mahony, was the very real back-row leader against Toulon.

That said, I do feel the time is fast approaching for Murray to assume the mantle of captain in O'Mahony's absence, and to share that responsibility when the Corkman is there.

While the robust flanker is a natural in that regard Murray has all the attributes in the most advantageous leadership position (scrum-half) of all. Murray is now the real deal and already up there alongside Paul O'Connell as one of those players incoming head coach Anthony Foley simply cannot afford to be without.

For sure, in O'Mahony and Murray, Foley has two very real leaders alongside older heads O'Connell and Coughlan in the core area of the team. Against that the search continues for creativity and that sadly missing edge in midfield and the last line too.

Whether he is to be played at 12, 13 or 15, I urge the new main man to have Andrew Conway's name carved in stone from September on.


On Friday, magnificent Ballybunion staged the inaugural Joe O'Mahony Memorial Golf Competition. As a member of the Limerick AFC 82 club I was delighted to play my (insignificant) part in the quest for the Eamonn Haugh PFL Flooring- sponsored trophy in memory of the Limerick great who passed away earlier this year.

Former goalkeeper Mick O'Donnell pipped midfielders Johnny Walsh (runner-up) and Jimmy Nodwell to the top prize, with Mike O'Brien, Mick Ahern and Fergus McDaid on the winners' rostrum in the invited guests category. A great day was had by all at Ballybunnion GC and afterwards in McMunns. Joe would have approved.

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