Friday 20 September 2019

Tony Ward: 'Ringrose set in stone in midfield - with Henshaw alongside him'

Garry Ringrose is a product of the most efficient developmental system in world rugby. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Garry Ringrose is a product of the most efficient developmental system in world rugby. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It wasn't the perfect ending to a magnificent November campaign, yet it was an illustration of just how far Irish rugby has come under Joe Schmidt. Beating New Zealand was the focus of the Guinness series and with that significant goal achieved, all signs pointed to a final-game romp against the USA.

In the end, they won by a 43-point margin, scoring eight tries, against dogged if extremely limited second-tier opposition.

We won pulling up with what was essentially a shadow 23, containing many third-choice selections.

Certainly that is how Schmidt will view it, despite all that is going on this morning.

I was in Manchester, New Hampshire in 2000 when the winning margin was 80 points (83-3).

Again the gulf in class was embarrassing but it was based on the best we could offer at that point in time. Can you imagine the damage James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander, Johnny Sexton, Jacob Stockdale and the rest might have inflicted on Saturday?


As it was, Garry Ringrose was the lone survivor from the All Blacks victory in the starting XV, and what a masterclass the centre treated us to - although Andrew Conway was a deserving man of the match.

Ringrose is a product of the most efficient developmental system in world rugby, one which Schmidt has inherited.

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The talent rolling off the Leinster schools conveyor belt has been honed, to the point whereby Leinster and Ireland can both win handsomely while fielding massively understrength sides on the same weekend.

Ringrose was burdened with the weight of being Brian O'Driscoll's successor long before he left school - as were fellow Blackrock alumni Luke Fitzgerald and Conway before him - and this 23-year-old is fast developing into the real deal.

Potentially, he has the lot. If he has a weakness I haven't yet spotted it, for in attack and defence he is almost imperturbable.

And he has another string to his bow, which most people have barely seen: he is a superb goalkicker. He was the biggest factor in Blackrock lifting the Senior Cup in 2013.

The talk is that Ireland need to pick two from Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, but for me, Ringrose's name should be set in stone; and his Leinster colleague Henshaw alongside him makes for the most comfortable combination, in my book.

Saturday's game was always set to be difficult, in that it was never about combinations or units, but about individuals.

Ringrose was not on trial, nor indeed was Josh van der Flier, but in every other position, the jury was sitting as Schmidt looks to finalise his World Cup squad.

In that regard Conway was an obvious winner. So too Rhys Ruddock, who was immense. Fellow back-rows Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan also delivered to order on the back of the previous weekend's extraordinary showing by the breakaway unit.

Tadhg Beirne was by a distance the best of the locks, while tighthead John Ryan made the most of his limited time when replacing Finlay Bealham.

The early injuries to Darren Sweetnam and Will Addison complicated matters, given that Sam Arnold and Carbery were forced into roles they didn't need in this particular Test.

That said, Carbery still looks a live alternative to Rob Kearney as starting full-back, in addition to his versatility and impact off the bench; his defensive reading is top drawer.

Ross Byrne did well but Carbery is still the shadow No 10 to Sexton, and rightly so.

John Cooney and Luke McGrath, just like Kieran Marmion in the three weeks past, both looked the business in terms of cover for Conor Murray. However, Murray, like Sexton, is in a different league when at his best.

Despite the success of this November series, I still feel that if we are going to challenge at the World Cup, we need Murray and Sexton firing on all cylinders.

To me, we still need to determine the best back-up for Kearney, Sexton and Murray.

It would take courage to omit Kearney and/or Sexton for one of the away Six Nations games (to Wales, Italy or Scotland), to run the rule over the understudies in a competitive game.

Were the call mine I would do it, while keeping the main men on the bench.

Quite apart from the call on his future, Schmidt must determine whether it is our defence of the Six Nations or the World Cup ambitions that matters more in 2019.

They are not by any means mutually exclusive but there are still some massive tactical calls to be made.

November was good but nowhere near the be all and end all.

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