Sunday 20 October 2019

Tony Ward: Marmion ahead of McGrath and Cooney in pecking order to replace injured Murray

Chasing pack of scrum-halves hoping to state case for World Cup inclusion

As of now, the pecking order looks, from this distance, like Kieran Marmion (pictured) marginally ahead of Luke McGrath and John Cooney (coming up fast on the rails), with Caolin Blade a more than efficient shadow to Marmion at the Sportsground. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
As of now, the pecking order looks, from this distance, like Kieran Marmion (pictured) marginally ahead of Luke McGrath and John Cooney (coming up fast on the rails), with Caolin Blade a more than efficient shadow to Marmion at the Sportsground. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

You throw, I'll catch - the immortal words of 'King' Barry John to half-back partner Gareth Edwards when he and his fellow half were in their pomp driving the greatest phase in Welsh rugby history.

'BJ' was class and central to the foundation put in place through Welsh and Lions success in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The tragedy was that he chose to retire so young. At just 27 years of age, he gave in to what he described at that ultra amateur time as "the pressure of expectation".

Mind you, with Phil Bennett stepping immediately into the breach for Wales and the Lions, expectations didn't exactly plummet. 'Benny' was another rugby-playing maestro and one of my heroes, along with Edwards and Gerald Davies, when growing up.

Never meet your heroes, they say, because they're sure to disappoint.

Well, you can disregard that nonsense when it comes to the wondrous Welsh of that great evolutionary period.

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John and Bennett were top quality and to this day, the greatest of so many greats to have worn the much-coveted Wales No 10 shirt.

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But the common denominator and key to making two of the most iconic figures become just that on a global scale was Edwards - the 'thrower' par excellence. However sweeping the statement, Gareth was simply the best, the greatest all-rounder of them all. He is to rugby what Pele is to soccer.

As we learn through the passing of the years, time fades the memory, but Gareth Edwards the scrum-half was, and continues to be, a playing presence apart.

Not for a minute would I attempt to draw comparison but right now we are blessed with the most complete scrum-half this country has produced. Yes, Conor Murray is that good.

I dare not upset too many of the great wearers of the green No 9 in times past, so I'll narrow it a bit when I say that having played alongside John Robbie, John Moloney, Robbie McGrath, Colin Patterson, Fergus Aherne, Tony Doyle and Michael Bradley at that level we have been blessed with the quality of our scrum-halves.

I didn't get to play alongside Donal Canniffe in green but certainly enjoyed that privilege in red.

Fast-forward then to a time when Joe Schmidt is building to what should prove our strongest challenge yet for the greatest prize of all. And given what lies ahead in the build-up to World Cup 2019 there is a type of perverse logic that the timing of injury to our 'Gareth' could well prove a blessing in disguise.

As of now, it appears Murray will miss all four November Tests. He will be badly missed because after out-half (arguably the most critical position on any rugby team), we are covered by two, if not three, alternatives in almost every other area.

Let's be clear. Murray and Johnny Sexton are not irreplaceable but it's a task the Ireland coach could well do without. For that reason, it's vital Joey Carbery is picked as the starting No 10 in Munster on a regular basis.

With respect to those already competing for that position down south - and there are four - Carbery was brought in to fill a void for province and by extension for country.

I don't know if the Athy man has what it takes to be a Sexton or a Ronan O'Gara at the very top, but my gut feeling, much like Schmidt, recognises the bits and pieces already in place. However, beyond Carbery, as of now, I am concerned.

But back to the base of the scrum and the ever-growing role of the No 9 as a playmaker in the modern game. Edwards transformed the influence of the scrum-half through the speed, length and design of his torpedo pass to that ability to snipe from anywhere at any time.

With the arrival of the Edwards-type half-back, the place for the 'diving' scrum-half was effectively removed. And so it has evolved. Different game, different demands.

As of now, the pecking order looks, from this distance, like Kieran Marmion marginally ahead of Luke McGrath and John Cooney (coming up fast on the rails), with Caolin Blade a more than efficient shadow to Marmion at the Sportsground.

At his best, Murray consistently operates at a different level with his physicality in defence, his tactical awareness, that amazing temperament and a box-kick second to none.

Apart from time-wasting at the scrum ('Doyler' was right all those years ago deeming the set-piece purely a means of restarting the game) nothing turns me off more than slavish adherence to the touchline snow grinder and when it is our main tactical tool, obviously depending on the opposition, we are the acknowledged masters of the art, specifically through Murray.

The point is Schmidt will be looking to that facet as a key indicator from the no-holds-barred battle ahead to see who becomes Ireland's No 2 scrum-half this side of Christmas.

If that is Schmidt's current line of thinking, it is difficult to counter based on impact when called up for Test duty in the most recent past.

The twice-capped Cooney is now a real challenger through his growing influence in a time of change at the Kingspan. Fickle, I know, but how quickly has the input of Ruan Pienaar being forgotten?

It is probably unfair to describe Murray's injury (about which we know very little) as that 'blessing in disguise', but in this instance one man's difficulty is another's opportunity and Schmidt will treat it as such.

The competition may be over a year away but the scrum-half battle is under way with November set to be a defining month.

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