Sunday 21 January 2018

Lydiate believes Irish must play with freedom if provincial success is to be replicated in green

Dan Lydiate has admitted his Wales team had their share of luck in the Six Nations
Dan Lydiate has admitted his Wales team had their share of luck in the Six Nations

Hugh Farrelly

THE Irish trophy cabinet waits expectantly for the provinces to provide Heineken Cup and Pro12 trophies, again, but the sight line to silverware is obscured by the elephant in the room -- an elephant wearing a giant green jersey.

An all-Ireland Heineken Cup final, with the prospect of an all-Ireland Pro12 decider the week after, points to an incredibly successful season for Irish rugby, or perhaps it is merely the 'compensation' Ronan O'Gara alluded to in Queenstown in the first week of Ireland's failed World Cup campaign.

For, nine months and one disappointing Six Nations campaign later, we are still no nearer to answering one of the most perplexing questions in rugby -- why is Ireland's provincial success not being reflected at national level?

Puzzle

It is a puzzle exercising rugby minds outside Ireland also. In the days after Ulster and Leinster booked their places in Twickenham's European decider, the English, Scottish, French and New Zealand media all raised this topic and struggled to nail a satisfactory explanation.

BBC pundit and former England centre Jeremy Guscott reckoned Ireland's rotation at 10, lack of cover in the front-row and "uncertainty in the way individuals within the team really, deep down, want to play" were salient issues.

Pundits aside, eliciting the views of a man who has gone up against Irish teams regularly, at club and international level, is a good way to try to get to the bottom of this one, and who better than the outstanding Newport-Gwent Dragons and Wales flanker Dan Lydiate?

Ireland's win ratio since the 2009 Grand Slam stands at a very ordinary 54pc (dropping to 48pc since 2010), while the Irish provinces have picked up two Heineken Cups and two league titles in the last three years -- with the prospect of two more trophies before the end of this month.

Meanwhile Wales, largely abject at club level, with not one Heineken Cup title to their name, have just wrapped up their third Grand Slam in seven years, on the back of reaching their second World Cup semi-final -- a peak Ireland have yet to scale. So what's the deal, Dan?

"It is a good question because your provincial teams are so strong -- we are not nearly as strong over here compared to the Irish teams," says Lydiate.

"It is a hard one to answer because with the strength of the Irish provincial teams you would think they would be super-powered when they come to international rugby. I am not saying Ireland are a poor team internationally, by any means, far from it, and at that level games are won and lost on such small margins.

"Sometimes it is just down to luck," he offers. "I think Wales have had our fair share of luck this year, hard work as well but we got the rub of the green that we might not have had in the past.

"When we play the Irish provinces in the Pro12, we always know it is going to be a really hard day at the office and, to be fair, when we face the Irish boys internationally that is the case as well, but we have done okay there. Against Ireland, it usually comes down to the wire. They have got such quality players, but the margins are so small at international (level), that can often be the difference."

Encouraged

For all of Lydiate's diplomacy, and modesty, this issue cannot be simply put down to luck, but when the 24-year-old goes on to talk about how things operate under Warren Gatland in the Welsh camp, he may have a possible solution for Ireland.

You could call it the 'Welsh way', when talented players come together, are told to put their club issues behind and are then encouraged to express themselves in the name of their country. "Warren has been brilliant," enthuses Lydiate. "He has brought a lot of younger boys through and we are allowed to play what is in front of us. Obviously, we have our set moves and that, but he always tells us 'back yourself, you are good enough players, so go out and play'.

"It is a good feeling to go out there with the freedom to have a go and know that if it is the right decision or the wrong decision, as long as you back yourself the coaches will support you. And more often than not, it has been coming off."

It certainly has against Ireland, who have lost their last three encounters with the Welsh, and, while Leigh Halfpenny's winning penalty in Lansdowne Road was last February was agonising for the Irish, it was their ruthless dismantling by Wales in the World Cup quarter-final that was the real killer.

Ireland's win over the Tri-Nations-winning Wallabies had set them up for a serious run at the title, but the Welsh had their number in Wellington and won pulling up. Given that they should have gone on to make the final, it is instructive to hear Lydiate talk about the deflation in the Welsh ranks when they returned from New Zealand, despite being hailed as one of the most progressive outfits in the competition.

Such are the standards Wales have set for themselves.

"A lot of the boys were disappointed coming back from the World Cup, it was an opportunity missed," he states.

"We did get a lot of praise but, it is all talk really and the only place to do your talking is on the field and we lost that semi-final. So, when we won the Grand Slam, the boys were so chuffed because for so many of the young guys, it was our first time winning anything -- we hadn't won anything at club level. Now, we need to push on."

To add to the complexity of the Irish question, Lydiate accepts that there are even tougher times ahead for the Welsh regions with the departure of their marquee players to higher salaries abroad but believes that, while Heineken Cups are still likely to prove elusive, this talent-drain may actually aid the Welsh national cause.

"It is a massive opportunity for the boys leaving -- playing in the French League, where there is so much quality, can only bring them on," he says.

"And, with the regions, it will mean a lot of new players being blooded and playing against the likes of the Irish provinces can only help them develop. We could see more talent coming through and when they are put together with the more experienced boys, it should be a pretty strong combination."

With another mediocre Dragons season over, Lydiate, who is committed to the Newport club for another season, has a breather now before the summer tour to Australia. Meanwhile, Ireland's front-line players are set for three more weeks of club action before summoning up the energy for their journey to New Zealand.

Gatland has been invalided out of Wales' tour to Australia but Lydiate and his team-mates will stick to his principle of backing themselves under Rob Howley, and the evidence suggests that, across the Tasman Sea, Ireland's provincial stars would be well advised to do the same.

The next few weeks will yield at least one more trophy for the Irish cabinet, but that elephant is not for budging until success is replicated in green.

Dan Lydiate is a rugby ambassador for RaboDirect, the straight talking savings bank who are proud sponsors of the RaboDirect PRO12.

Irish Independent

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