Tuesday 16 January 2018

Tony Ward: Pick players based on what they can do, not what they can’t

Of course defence is important, but when it comes to wingers, I’d always want my best finishers on the pitch

Leinster's Adam Byrne arrives ahead of the Guinness PRO14 Round 6 match between Leinster and Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Leinster's Adam Byrne arrives ahead of the Guinness PRO14 Round 6 match between Leinster and Munster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Almost every group is tough but this is without doubt the proverbial Pool of Death. For Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster and Montpellier, three home wins has to be the bottom-line objective.

Beyond that, it is about scraping a bonus point or two in any conceivable way

Leinster and Exeter kept up their part when beating Montpellier and Glasgow respectively on home soil last week.

For Montpellier there was the satisfaction of the bonus point on the road. As Munster can testify more than any other in this great competition, returning with something, anything despite defeat is an absolute imperative.

Inherited

The Warriors were trailing 17-15 going into the final few minutes at Sandy Park, and Sam Simmonds’ late, late try inflicted a first defeat of the season on the side Dave Rennie recently inherited from Gregor Townsend, depriving the Scots of the precious losing bonus which is in essence what this Pool is all about.

I am not suggesting that any of the sides in this ultra-competitive pool will go into an away match with anything other than an intention to win, but sometimes ambition has to be tempered by perspective.

And just as an aside, of all the grounds I have visited over the years, the two that impressed me most were Scotstoun and Sandy Park – long before Glasgow won the Pro12 in 2015 or Exeter won the Premiership this year.

They are in two of the less established rugby strongholds – and I’m being kind here – yet each ground on match-day was brimming with that key ingredient, unity of purpose.    

Both clubs have been blessed with quality of coaches, Rob Baxter down in Devon and Kiwi Rennie and his predecessor Townsend in football-mad Glasgow.

Rennie, as he told my colleague David Kelly in midweek, is hell-bent on returning the Warriors to the swashbuckling style and consistency that led to a Pro12 title three seasons ago under Townsend.  

If you want to see the way Rennie operates, have an on-line look at the Waikato side he coached to two Super Rugby titles.

But he has a battle on his hands in Scotland, given that only eight of the 23 players involved when Glasgow beat Munster in the 2015 PRO12 final are still on board, barely two years on.

Bear in mind too that today’s game against Leinster will be star full-back Stuart Hogg’s first competitive fixture since he sustained that freak injury on Lions duty last summer.

So this is very much a team in transition, with a new head coach – albeit one with a similar philosophy to his predecessor – yet they are flying high in the PRO14 with six wins from six.

Among the players to have left Glasgow since they won the title is Fijian second-row Leone Nakarawa.

At 6ft 7in and just shy of 20st, this octopus on speed was the catalyst for the Warriors in 2015 and may well prove the same at Racing. I’m not sure how you replace the irreplaceable but clearly Rennie is adapting.

Problem

Either way the Nakarawa problem is now something for Munster to deal with at Thomond Park later on today.

In Hogg, Tommy Seymour, Peter Horne, Finn Russell, Jonny Gray, Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley, Glasgow are loaded with talent.

The psychological dice roll in Leinster’s favour, with five wins from the sides’ six European meetings to date, but this is Rennie’s reconstituted Warriors and a 4G  surface (which I hate) at Scotstoun in 2017.

Yet Leinster have plenty of cause for optimism too. Over the last fortnight, against Munster (close your ears Peter O’Mahony) and Montpellier, they have brought a greater intensity and greater energy to the fight than their opponents.

They scored four well engineered tries last week, although they may rue letting Montpellier get away with a losing bonus point.

But there were many positives with so many of the younger generation stepping up to the mark – James Ryan, Ross Byrne, Joey Carbery and Barry Daly.

Carbery, Daly and Adam Byrne – despite being dropped this week following some defensive errors last week – look a pretty useful back three for the future as well as the present.

Add in Jordan Larmour as well as Rory O’Loughlin (both of whom can also play centre), and Leinster’s outside-back cupboards are clearly well stocked.

 I am from the Kevin Keegan school when it comes to picking outside backs, whereby a player is measured by what he can do rather than what he can’t.

The trick is in striking a balance between attacking skills and defensive reliability. Of course a well organised defence is essential, but the main emphasis should always be on finishing ability in the wider channels.

Not since Denis Hickie have we had an out-and-out pace man on the Ireland wing, although Keith Earls – with his poacher’s instinct for tries – is in the best form of his career, while Jacob Stockdale (despite being left out of the Ulster side for tomorrow’s clash with La Rochelle) simply has to come into the frame to start against South Africa in three weeks’ time.

But back to today’s eagerly awaited clash, and the powerful influence of Robbie Henshaw. Against Montpellier he was simply immense.

What resonated most with me was his post-match comment: “I love playing in the centre, 12 or 13, anywhere at all”.

Talk to almost any young lad playing in the centre at underage level today and he will describe himself as a 12 (a second receiver) or a 13 (outside-centre). It is nonsense and a pigeon-holing players much too early.

Bear in mind Gordon D’Arcy was a full-back in Clongowes and Brian O’Driscoll every thing from scrum-half to wing at Blackrock, yet the duo became the greatest combination ever to wear green.

It is all about chemistry in midfield, and getting that balance should be the aim of every backs coach worth his salt.

Centres should be freely interchangeable to give teams the best chance lock-picking modern-day system-driven defences, particularly off set scrums.

Leinster look to have the edge up front today, with Glasgow’s Scotland hooker Fraser Brown ruled out for up to eight weeks.

Leo Cullen has been able to rotate his front-row and has Scott Fardy back to provide second-row solidity alongside Devin Toner.

All five replacement forwards, from James Tracy through to Dan Leavy (who if he can avoid injury is another player destined for the very top) offer continuity if not out-and-out impact.

There is too the Jonathan Sexton factor which needs little elaboration.

The Warriors with home advantage are pre-match favourites, but if ever opportunity knocked for Leinster to make a statement, this is it.

Rennie is hell-bent on returning the Warriors to the swashbuckling style and consistency that led to a Pro12 title three seasons ago.

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