Monday 21 January 2019

Tony Ward: You can be certain our competitiveness in Europe will continue into the foreseeable future and beyond

Irish sides prove they can mix it with big guns in the white heat of European conflict

Jordan Larmour, left, and James Lowe of Leinster
Jordan Larmour, left, and James Lowe of Leinster
Luke McGrath. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Unlike the back-to-back December games - when it was a clean sweep for Irish sides in Europe by way of an eight from eight winning return - a modest two wins, a draw and a loss from four would seem to represent a disappointing follow-on. Anything but.

Here we are going into the final weekend in both Champions and Challenge Cups and all four Irish sides are topping their respective pools. I'm not too sure it will end up that way in a few days, but with just the one series of games to go it's a pretty good place to be.

Bear in mind that it's not too long ago that the harbingers of doom - many of whom are home-based I might add - were predicting Ireland's competitiveness in Europe was at an end.

Irrespective of what happens now - and even in the worst case scenario that all four Irish representatives were to be knocked out between the final pool round and the quarter-finals - you can be certain our competitiveness at the sharp end of Europe will continue into the foreseeable future and beyond.

For Leinster at the RDS it was a stroll in the park. I know this Leinster management team to be sensible enough to recognise the Glasgow opposition for what it was on the day: simply there to make up the numbers.

Yes, they scored a couple of half-decent tries, but they were demolished by the top team in the pool from virtually first whistle to last.

When it comes to the final eight qualifiers they are right up there with the best there is. There were big performances everywhere against the Warriors, but Luke McGrath, in particular, continues to edge ever closer to that shadow scrum-half slot to Conor Murray.

The good news for Joe Schmidt is that the gap between Murray, McGrath and Kieran Marmion is narrowing through increasing top-level exposure for the latter two.

Read more here:

Murray is still our ace and let's not pretend otherwise, but McGrath continues to grow in stature and influence with every passing game.

Given that Munster suffered the only defeat, I guess there could, and should, be an element of disappointment. I may be in the minority, but it's a feeling I don't share.

To start as slowly as they did and then come back in the way they did, most particularly through two brilliantly crafted tries, represented a statement in itself. They are not yet ready to conquer Europe, but this was another hugely constructive step in that direction.

Part of that progress is in learning how to close out games through ruthless efficiency and attention to bread and butter details.

The art of securing that away bonus as the bottom line return on the road has been mastered, although given the circumstances I don't know what Racing were at in not going for the jugular when back in front (albeit by a point) in the dying minutes.

If you had offered Peter O'Mahony, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones the scenario of going into the last pool game on their home patch with qualification for the last eight and possibly a home quarter-final the carrot, they would have devoured you whole.

Thomond is guaranteed to be rocking in true game six tradition when Castres come to town on Sunday.

As Johann van Graan intimated after the match, they were still on the bus in the opening phase and caught out a little by the stage and the atmosphere. But this is a Munster group growing in substance.

Yes, they still have to learn how to close a game out, but I know, like me, they will share a secret moment of quiet satisfaction that it was one of their own mainly responsible for taking this one away in the dying phases.

It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy than Donnacha Ryan to be the one responsible for retrieving the ball and in the process creating the match-winning penalty opportunity on the restart, after Murray's apparent match-winning kick from halfway.

The Tipperary man's blood still courses Munster red. All things being equal he would be wearing that colour shirt and not blue and white, but he is so typical of what those left behind are fast becoming. His legacy lives.

Keith Earls was again brilliant, while Rory Scannell continues to impress in that second play-making role. Ian Keatley wasn't by any means perfect, but his pass for Chris Farrell's try was sublime in its weight and sympathy for the receiver.

It would, of course, have been a gamble had Racing opted for a scrum or kick to the corner instead of that final penalty, but in making the decision they did lose the possibility of a two-point swing at the top of the Pool.

It was a let-off, so let us keep a sense of perspective.

Battle lost, but war set to be won in Limerick in six days.

Irish Independent

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