Thursday 20 September 2018

Tony Ward: Sweetnam can go to next level and put pressure on Earls and Conway

Ulster and Connacht make encouraging starts to new era but lots of work still to be done

Connacht’s Jack Carty impressed despite his side’s defeat. Photo: SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Connacht’s Jack Carty impressed despite his side’s defeat. Photo: SEB DALY/SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The pre kick-off wish was for Connacht and Ulster to hit the ground running and, in whatever order, rejoin Leinster and Munster at the top table as the forces in European and domestic rugby we know they both can be.

Maybe it's because my own playing time was spent wearing red and then blue in the opposition corner that I have always had a deep interest in affairs north and west of the island.

Despite Andy Friend's newly inherited side coming up just short against Glasgow - as against the even more recently installed Dan McFarland and his charges squeezing it at the death through the consistently influential John Cooney - my pre-season desire holds. The pecking order is Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht, first to fourth in that order.

Do I want it to change? If I'm brutally honest, yes I would. It would be to the betterment of Irish rugby and while it won't happen overnight, or indeed over the next eight months, there is no reason why Connacht and Ulster cannot challenge for PRO14 honours, with a place at the business end come May the minimum target.

With respect to Les Kiss (Jono Gibbes too) and Kieran Keane, time spent in the Kingspan and at the Sportsground won't figure too prominently on their CVs for whatever coaching challenges might lie ahead.

From the time Pat Lam expressed his intention to move on, and in Ulster's case much further back than that, it's been a rough ride for supporters of both provinces.

The reasons are many and in the case of the northern province go way beyond the playing and training fields, but what we have now is a new beginning.

Thomond Park and the RDS are great places to be on European days or nights when packed to capacity, but for pure atmosphere on an ongoing basis, it's Ulster and Connacht who lead the way - and, I might add, in that order.

The western province could do with a newer, bigger home base, but for match-day atmosphere the Galway ground is unrecognisable from what it once was.

For those who have yet to enjoy the Kingspan experience, particularly on a Friday night, I urge you to make the effort, for in good times and bad you'll never be disappointed.

Ravenhill rocks every bit as much in bad times as good. It is my favourite ground by a proverbial mile, with the 'stand up' support loyal to a fault.

God only knows how good it could be were the halcyon days of Jimmy Davidson, Willie Anderson, Davy Irwin, Trevor Ringland et al to return.

Indeed, even before it was transformed into the most complete fit-for-purpose rugby stadium in the land, I can still vividly recall how the old ground heaved in the quarter-final against Toulouse and semi versus Stade Francais, before the assault on Dublin and all that Heineken Cup success entailed back in '99.

Initial thoughts on the opening weekend? Leinster looked rusty, but got an away win that simply oozed self-belief. At no stage did they look to be chasing a lost cause. They are what they are because of an extraordinary academy linking underage with the real thing, but underpinned by pragmatic coaching from the top down.

Dave Kearney was good and despite suggestions to the contrary is at his best when wearing 15. Fellow former Clongownian Bryan Byrne looks as if his time has come to make a real challenge, while Jamison Gibson Park also made a real second-half impact, with Rhys Ruddock and Scott Fardy the driving force up front.

At the Sportsground, naivety in defence cost the westerners dear against top opposition in Glasgow. On the plus side, Caolin Blade and, particularly, Jack Carty impressed.

I believe that with patience and perseverance on the part of the coaching staff Carty can follow in the footsteps of Eric Elwood and - more recently, if for a shorter period - AJ MacGinty.

Jarrad Butler looks the real deal and bear in mind there's Robin Copeland still to come into that back row. Tom Farrell also looks the business in midfield while the back three, from an attacking perspective, have it in spades.

In Limerick the glaring deficiency in the PRO14 (and I abhor the Conference principle) was there for all to see. For the record, in Bloemfontein on Saturday the Free State Cheetahs were playing the Natal Sharks in the Currie Cup, while a few hours later in Thomond the Cheetahs were playing Munster in the Pro 14. Make of that what you will, but little comment is needed.

Munster were adequate against weak opposition. Darren Sweetnam was outstanding. The former Cork hurler is capable of going to the next level and can pose a real threat to Keith Earls and Andrew Conway for province and country.

Neil Cronin was hugely impressive, as were JJ Hanrahan and Joey Carbery, with Dave Kilcoyne the stand-out tight five forward he has consistently become.

For competitive intensity the Ulster v Scarlets game was the best of the weekend. Leinster have the strongest squad, but for accuracy and precision the Scarlets are the easiest on the eye, thereby making this a massive win for Ulster. An encouraging start all round but much to be done.

Way too soon for Ireland to get sucked into World Cup hype

One early season gripe: The Webb Ellis will look after itself in time. I make this point because, despite the hype, this is still not a World Cup year or even a World Cup season.

So, please, may we be spared the exaggerated stuff already jumping out from our TV screens. From an Irish perspective there is a PRO14 League, European Champions and Challenge Cups and November Test series (embracing four internationals this time around, although 'the Italian job in Chicago' smacks of pure commercial opportunism), not to mention the little matter of a 2019 Six Nations and defence of the 2018 Grand Slam.

Let's take care of 2018/19 and 2019/20 will look after itself.

Along with 82,000 others I was privileged to be in Croke Park on Sunday. Croker on All-Ireland final day, in football and hurling, extends way beyond the sporting confine.

It is a day when our cultural identity rings around the world loud and proud.

What would we as a rugby-playing nation give to have an anthem that defines and unites us on foreign fields. And, no, I don't have the solution.

Irish Independent

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