Thursday 15 November 2018

Tony Ward: Leinster cultivating All Black aura as James Lowe shows the heights this team can hit

  

Leinster's James Lowe goes over to score his side's third try despite the efforts of Munster's Jean Kleyn. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Leinster's James Lowe goes over to score his side's third try despite the efforts of Munster's Jean Kleyn. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

On Saturday, within minutes of each other, we witnessed the two biggest clashes in world rugby at their respective levels. In Pretoria, New Zealand again did the seemingly impossible when coming back from the dead in the final minutes to squeeze South Africa with the final play of the game. No sooner had the final whistle in the Loftus Versfeld Stadium blown than Leinster and Munster, before a jam-packed Aviva, were at it hell for leather in surely the most meaningful 'Final Trial' of all time.

Bear in mind there have been suggestions from some who should know better that the biggest match in the club/provincial calendar had burnt itself out. Time, methinks, for them to reassess. What we witnessed here was the type of sporting passion and ultra commitment more easily associated with the bastion of Gaelic Games on the other side of the Liffey.

Irrespective of the outcome, it is surely nigh on impossible for even the most blinkered critic of the oval ball code not to acknowledge the sporting parallel. Munster could have won, perhaps should have won, but in the end the team building that All Black aura did what they had to do in that typically clinical way.

They did that despite fielding at least six short of what - prior to Saturday - would have seemed the first choice line-up. You wouldn't envy Leo Cullen or Stuat Lancaster their selection headaches this week; and yet no coach of substance would want it any other way.

Aside from Conor Murray, when he is back fit and firing, it is difficult to see how much stronger in pre-match selection Munster can get. There is still a glaring issue and it continues in the centre. Both Dan Goggin and Sam Arnold did well and along with Rory Scannell, Chris Farrell and/or Jaco Taute there seem to be options, but press me on the best combination and I haven't a clue.

The challenge for the coaching staff is to come up with a creative formula embracing Andrew Conway, because as of now it is central to why so much possession is not being translated into more meaningful try scoring opportunities.

All that said, I do think Johann van Graan has much to build on heading to Sandy Park, where mesmeric centres will be the last ingredient on either coach's mind.

In individual terms Peter O'Mahony was again immense and CJ Stander not far behind, but still waiting to erupt. Dave Kilcoyne was awesome in the loose, with both starting locks growing in presence. Keith Earls was the pick of the backs by a mile. Joey Carbery did well, with his kick to the Lansdowne corner in the 24th minute the standout moment. It represented for me the first sign of tactical/ mental intuition working in tandem and was executed accordingly. One solitary kick, but with it genuine hope as to where it might lead.

On either side of the ball Leinster were simply awesome, but particularly so minus possession. They are in a good place given the competition for places guaranteed to keep any 'second season syndrome' at bay. In the backs, Rob Kearney and Ross Byrne delivered to order - Byrne displaying great nerves of steel under pressure. It's a big psychological step in his development as a potential successor to the team captain.

Against that, and with the greatest respect to a really substantial performance, Man of the Match he was not. To look beyond James Lowe as the biggest single difference between the sides on this day would be delusional.

Irrespective of Isa Nacewa's advancing retirement, I questioned the wisdom of signing an overseas back three player given the talent already there and coming through. I was wrong. Lowe has been a revelation, he plays with a smile on his face, a bounce in his step and magic in those hands.

His second try (of what was to all intents and purposes a hat-trick) had to be seen to be believed. How he managed to check stride, take the misplaced pass over his shoulder, readjust and still squeeze in avoiding opposition bodies and touchline bordered on the miraculous. He was the difference.

There was another key moment that almost disappeared under the radar. Stephen Archer has many qualities, but ice in the mind with the body on fire is not one. The stupidity of his giveaway penalty with the Leinster lead reduced to five was the equivalent of an own-goal in rugby.

Byrne's beautifully struck kick took it out to eight and the war was won at the end of another great day for Irish rugby.

Irish Independent

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