Monday 10 December 2018

Tony Ward: 'Chris Farrell can put pressure on Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw for Irish No 12 shirt'

 

Soft hands: The stand-out performance of the weekend was delivered by Chris Farrell in Cork. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Soft hands: The stand-out performance of the weekend was delivered by Chris Farrell in Cork. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It just gets better by the week. The results stand for themselves with another clean sweep of four wins from four and Connacht returning from South Africa blemish free, and with nine points from a possible 10.

Cast your mind back not so long ago to a time in Celtic League rugby when the Welsh, in particular, were decrying the IRFU and the player-welfare policy whereby contact time was being centrally managed by the pipers in Lansdowne Road.

We'll not pretend it's all Philip Browne's doing as the developmental system has been meticulously cut to measure.

However, that has been added to enormously through the quality of coaching and overseas coaches brought on board.

Like any bubble it could burst though, and as a rugby-playing nation that has known more downs than ups, we are not going to dabble in arrogance of any kind.

Shabby

We are where we are on the back of superb game management from the top down. And it ain't half shabby on the field either through Johnny Sexton, Peter O'Mahony et al.

I'll not go through the various provincial teams and what each are achieving in their own right other than to say that never have we had a system whereby all four are performing so well when the international elite are away.

If you trawl through our front-row stocks it is hard to believe there was a time when Marcus Horan and John Hayes carried the competitive hopes of the nation.

We did have some scope at loosehead but on the tight side, upon 'the Bull' (a converted lock) did every hope and aspiration lie.

Now we are coming down with alternatives on both sides.

Indeed, when Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan came ashore we wondered about our second-row future.

Look at it now and apart from James Ryan - amazingly at 22 - who do you select alongside from Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson?

When we lost O'Connell to Father Time it seemed like the end of the world.

When Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy called it a day there could be no tomorrow or any end to our midfield woes.

Enter and then exit Jared Payne to injury and the void was gaping. Yet here we are a year out from the next World Cup and the midfield options are growing by the month.

I suggested a fortnight ago that it was two from three - Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki. Just two weeks on and I take that back.

I firmly believe that Ringrose is now the BOD equivalent; set in stone at 13.

But watching Sam Arnold, plus the unrelated Chris and Tom Farrell, Stuart McCloskey and Rory Scannell and the centre larder is every bit as well stocked as all three rows of the scrum.

I am full of admiration for players with ambition who choose to go the scenic route in pursuit of their dreams.

That principle certainly applies to Arnold and the Farrells.

However, the stand-out performance of the weekend, in his first start following a serious knee injury, was delivered by Chris Farrell at Irish Independent Park in Cork.

Even by modern-day standards the former Fivemiletown College student and Clogher Valley underage player is a massive unit. And while he uses that bulk much like McCloskey, his range of passing goes way beyond that octopus offload synonymous with Sonny Bill Williams, McCloskey and others.

Before Farrell made his Ireland debut against Fiji a little over a year ago another former Ulster team-mate Darren Cave alerted me to Farrell's extensive range of passing.

If Johann van Graan can nail the midfield pairing at Munster - and it has to include Farrell - then game time wearing No 12 will surely see him step up alongside Henshaw or Aki as a potential partner to Ringrose in the biggest games at next year's World Cup.

Forgive

Friday last was no single-swallow performance and forgive any hint of bias but his background in soccer in south Tyrone brings an appreciation of space that rugby in isolation at underage can never offer.

With Andrew Conway and Keith Earls on fire and Mike Haley, on limited opportunity, suggesting even greater things, for the first time in quite a while I am really excited at what is evolving at Munster.

There is also an appreciation articulated best by O'Mahony in recent interviews that Leinster, as of now, are in a different place but that is the level of aspiration within this current Munster squad.

Such comment is no sign of weakness, indeed quite the opposite. The return of Farrell could well provide the most vital spark.

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