Tony Ward: 'Changes from European selection make for intriguing contest'
A few years back I did a piece sounding off about the Leinster selection heading to Thomond for the festive interpro. The nub of the moan was the fact that the sell-out crowd had bought tickets on the basis that they would witness fully-stocked and full-blooded tribal warfare.
The developing trend then was Top 14-related where French teams (as many still do to this day) unleash the full monty at home but set their replacements loose when on the road. The last thing we needed in Irish rugby was to follow that self-defeating process – that in a nutshell was my mini rant.
However well intentioned, in retrospect I was proved wrong. What we all need to remember, my good self included, is that rugby in the professional age is still evolving. Due in the main to the import of so many top-quality coaches at provincial level – Joe Schmidt among them – we have learnt what it takes not to cut off our nose to spite our face. And here I cannot emphasise enough the input of the IRFU and specifically the role of David Nucifora as high performance director.
I have little doubt but that the powers that be in New Zealand rugby will entice Schmidt back into coaching within his native land at the highest level. In a similar vein, though thankfully Nucifora is still fully entrenched here, how long before the Australian Rugby Union come hunting the obvious candidate to solve the current crisis in Aussie rugby?
All of which leads to the current state of play in Irish provincial rugby and a player welfare process that is better flagged, better understood and far more acceptable to the supporting public at large. Unlike professional football the nature of the game makes back-to-back fixtures just days apart a physical impossibility. So how each individual coach plays the cards dealt by the IRFU is central to season-long success.
The benefit of balancing the best of emerging talent (Academy or ‘A’ team) with overseas recruits and those on the periphery of match-day squads is now there for all to see and nobody has any problem with that anymore. The province with the least number involved in the national squad is obviously best equipped for a hectic period like this now.
Yet how enlightening, even allowing for the element of injury, to see Andy Friend widen the net in the manner he has since taking control at Connacht Rugby. Despite his gruff style it was difficult not to feel for Kieran Keane given his abrupt departure.
Whoever took over from Pat Lam was inheriting a poisoned chalice but the Keane interlude and that fractious period has worked in Friend’s favour. I like what I am seeing and hearing from the Sportsground. It is essential that Irish rugby has four strong provinces and not just one or two and sometimes three. We need four shoulder to shoulder.
International Rugby Newsletter
Since the start of the season, but specifically over the past few weeks, in the absence of Craig Ronaldson, Niyi Adeolokun, Eoin Griffin, Peter Robb, Colm De Buitléir, Matt Healy, Kieran Marmion and Seán O’Brien, names like Kyle Godwin, Kieran Joyce, David Horwitz, James Mitchell, Peter McCabe, Joe Maksymiw, James Connolly, Matthew Burke, Conor Carey, Conor Fitzgerald and Dominic Robertson-McCoy have entered the Connacht playing lexicon. I laud the decision too (whether player-driven or Union-controlled) for Tom Daly to move west even though it’s in the short term for now.
As of today, it’s a Leinster squad weakened in theory through 12 changes from the back-to-back wins over Bath set to face a Connacht line-up with ten changes from the Challenge Cup back-to-back wins over Perpignan and that still leaves Bundee Aki on the bench.
That said, there’s little doubt but that Connacht have been strengthened and Leinster weakened thereby making this sell-out game at the RDS a very real contest and one, given the changed balance, well capable of going either way.
Effectively, it is the nucleus of the Leinster squad that faced and demolished Ospreys and Dragons in the last two Pro14 games. One suspects the days of Welsh regions complaining about understrength Irish provinces are long a thing of the past.
From Peter Dooley at loosehead through to Hugo Keenan at full-back, it is a Leinster side brimming with talent. Michael Bent, Scott Fardy, Rhys Ruddock and Dan Leavy, and Dave Kearney too, will provide the seasoned leadership, while Seán Cronin, Andrew Porter and Noel Reid will be in reserve just in case. However, for the likes of Keenan, Conor O’Brien, Bryan and Ed Byrne, Caelan Doris, Hugh O’Sullivan and Ciarán Frawley, this is massive and another important step in Leinster Academy player development.
Like I said, a couple of years back we would have been complaining about such wholesale changes, particularly at this time of year, but not any more.
For Connacht too how exciting is it to see names like Godwin, Farrell, Boyle, Thornbury, McCabe, Robertson McCoy, Mitchell and Horwitz appear with increasing frequency.
The new head coach might not have the same resources as Leinster but the principle of rotation will pay its dividend in the medium to long term.
Not for a minute am I suggesting it is a weak Connacht side. On the contrary, even in the absence of established players like those injured and listed above, plus Aki as well as the rested Quinn Roux, Dave Heffernan and Robin Copeland, the increasingly impressive Kiwi flanker and skipper Jarrad Butler leads a formidable western line-up.
Piece it all together and it makes for an intriguing contest one certain to have Schmidt and his national staff salivating at the opportunity to oversee what is effectively another trial.
Take your pick but Leinster are probably still the marginal favourites.