Saturday 26 May 2018

Tony Ward: Nacewa switch to centre can help ignite Henshaw

Positive start for Leinster, Ulster and Munster as opening round suggests top sides have widened gap to the pack

Isa Nacewa, here sidestepping Cory Hill of Dragons, could be a big addition in the centre for Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Isa Nacewa, here sidestepping Cory Hill of Dragons, could be a big addition in the centre for Leinster. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A good start is half the battle, or the more things change the more they stay the same.

Such was the overall impression of an opening weekend that with 'only' 20 rounds to go, not to mention play-offs, semi-finals and final, would seem to indicate the status quo for another season at least.

Apart from the heavy guns there were definite seeds of possibility planted by Richard Cockerill's Edinburgh when winning on the road at Cardiff.

Michael Bradley's Zebre made a fair fist of it too down the track in Swansea but we won't suggest there are any Italian miracles appearing just yet.

The champion Scarlets, including the unfairly-maligned Leigh Halfpenny, looked a classy outfit against an ambitious but seriously at sea Kings.

From an Irish perspective it was an encouraging start given three five-point returns, with Connacht the lone squib failing to ignite.

Working in chronological order and starting at the Kingspan, for me the most complete rugby stadium on this island, it was Ulster who hit the ground running.


Only time will tell whether they were that good or the Cheetahs were undercooked.

As an appetiser to sate the fans this was just the performance messrs Les Kiss, Jono Gibbes, Dwayne Peel and Aaron Dundon would have craved.

It wasn't perfect and there are still serious issues to be adressed in the tight five, not least the positioning of Iain Henderson upon his return, but given the loss of Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson there was much to admire in the John Cooney/Christian Lealiifano combination at nine and ten.

I raise the issue now in relation to Henderson because in Jean Deysel, Chris Henry and Marcell Coetzee they possess a back-row with balance and an innate mongrel ability to carry.

The core to the side from six to ten looks very promising. Beyond that Stuart McCloskey continues to do what he does best however simple the demand given his gainline-breaking physique.

The experiment with Tommy Bowe at outside centre is clearly driven by Peel from Bowe's days in Wales where he shifted seamlessly between wing and centre.

For me his most effective position outside of wing is full-back but given the abundance of wings up north it is an experiment well worth pursuing with distribution under pressure the main concern.

The Bloemfontein side contributed their fair share in a highly entertaining curtain-raiser to the new PRO14 product.

However, as I said on Saturday, patience is required for the South African debutants to settle in.

It is not an Italian job repeated - South African rugby is much too strong for that - but time to adapt in terms of seasonal variation, intensity and cultural differences will be required.

For all the noises coming out of Newport I was disappointed with the end product as Bernard Jackman's new charges took on his old team. For 'Birch', revitalising the Dragons in the fanatical bubble that is Welsh rugby is a major ask. They were competitive up to the penalty try and yellow card but after that, particularly when emptying their bench, it was Leo Cullen and Leinster in cruise control.

The bar is set high for Leinster this season. It is not on the back of one game but given the strength in depth and the conveyor belt currently stuck in fifth, the quantity and quality coming through underage into the academy (and most crucially beyond) is mind-boggling.

Pick three back-rowers from this eight, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some: Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Sean O'Brien, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, Max Deegan and Jack Conan (assuming Scott Fardy, like Henderson for Ulster, packs down at lock).

And the biggest plus out of Rodney Parade? Isa Nacewa at 12. Another Gordon D'Arcy centre moment perhaps?

Nacewa ain't no spring chicken but is underused on the wing and not complete enough at out-half. What a potential playmaker he is to throw down the gauntlet and compete with Robbie Henshaw, when he's back from injury, for that second-receiver role.

It was a doddle for Munster but with Andrew Conway again sublime.

If the former Blackrock College full-back seals that slot for Munster ahead of Simon Zebo then, despite his relative small stature, Joe Schmidt could have a full-back of real substance on his hands.

Similarities with All Black Damian McKenzie are not misplaced. Great too to see Mike Sherry back on board while Robin Copeland, who came on for the last quarter, I deem to be a much under-rated player despite the array of talent and competitiveness also in the back-row in the south.

For Connacht, in miserable conditions, it was a game and performance best forgotten. New head coach Kieran Keane is on the meat when he suggests an inability to 'play smart'.

Even in the glory year of 2016 that inability to read conditions was an issue. It's not even about being smart, just sensible.

Irish Independent

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