Thursday 14 December 2017

McCaw's brilliance must not be lost in begrudgery

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Am I alone in feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the apparently encouraging news that Ireland have moved up two places to No 5 in the latest IRB world rankings? Our win over Argentina -- a side in serious transition -- has seen us jump up from No 7, aided by the French slaughter at the hands of the Wallabies.

The ranking system is complex, but anyone who thinks Ireland's Autumn Series justifies a two-place jump in the rankings is living in cloud cuckoo land. I don't understand the system -- all I know for sure is what I see on the field. And we, like the rest of Europe, are so far off the pace of the top southern hemisphere three, it's scary.

Yes, we could have got a draw against the Springboks, had Ronan O'Gara's late conversion attempt been another inch to the left. But let's be honest -- this was a tired South African team hugely under-strength on our patch and they still won pulling up, despite a scare in the final 15 minutes.

I saw it suggested recently -- as a lame excuse -- that the Tri Nations sides have a big advantage in November because they have been together for more recent long periods than European nations.

How conveniently we forget the defence we offer every June for our finest going south under-strength and exhausted at the tail end of a long and hard season. Does the same not apply in November for the southern hemisphere sides coming north?


We understand the money-making principle behind the June and November Test Series, but we are recognising a rugby dud for what it is. The swathes of empty seats are a reflection of tough financial times but also a timely reminder to the world governing body and individual Unions that punters will no longer be duped into paying big money to see games. The goose is fast running out of golden eggs.

The fact that the All Blacks, at their exhilarating best this year, failed to fill the 50,000-capacity Aviva Stadium tells you all you need to know about the economic climate and growing apathy.

The time has come for the IRB and its major Unions to rethink the entire touring process. A single global season running concurrently is an impossibility, but more meaningful single-country tours are not.

Those so privileged to be present when Munster again beat the Wallabies on a bitter November night were reminded what touring once was and what it can, with the right vision and planning, again be.

The visit of the Samoans to the Sportsground also made for a memorable occasion. And that is as it should be.

Why not one of the Tri Nations three plus Argentina touring the old Five Nations on a cyclical basis, but restricted to five weeks in one European country in any given year?

That would then be reciprocated in June four or five years on, thereby providing management in both hemispheres with the scope to experiment and extend their squads. It would make touring (as in cultural appreciation) more meaningful and more enjoyable for the players and make Tests (whether one or two) more appealing to sports lovers in the host countries through increasing familiarity with the touring squad.

As of now, with Magners League, Heineken Cup, Autumn Internationals and Six Nations, far too many are simply 'rugbied out'.

Incidentally, so much for the theory, too, about hard southern hemisphere grounds facilitating running rugby. The All Blacks touched down for 16 tries and the Australians 10, with the six scored by Ireland and England the best the acclimatised Six Nations could offer.

The better weather south of the equator certainly facilitates skill development from an early age but when the will is there, as the Antipodeans demonstrated, it is possible to play the game at pace through the hands on a level playing field.

The southern hemisphere dominance -- specifically that of New Zealand -- has been reflected in the 2010 IRB Awards. Richie McCaw led the All Blacks to 13 wins from 14 games this year, including a Tri Nations clean sweep and another Home Nations Grand Slam. McCaw's level of consistency as captain and flanker is beyond reproach. I find the begrudging attitude to his on-field influence sad in the extreme.

He is not, as popular opinion would have it, "offside all the time". You are in an offside position when the referee blows for the offence. Yes, McCaw plays it on the edge, but what top-level professional doesn't? It marks the greats out from the rest and great McCaw assuredly is.

What would Ireland give to have him challenging the laws and wearing the green No 7 as we move from one win to the next? To suggest that any top referee is in awe of any player -- as people claim officials are of McCaw -- is an insult. If Paddy O'Brien or any of the refereeing powers-that-be deem a referee to be intimidated by any player, he will be removed.

McCaw plays the angles better than any other player. Australia's David Pollock is fast catching up in terms of speed to and impact at the breakdown, but to take the ultimate individual global award three times in five years assures McCaw's greatness beyond dispute and to hell with the pseudo-intellectual begrudgers.

The judging panel of nine -- including our own Paul Wallace -- had over 500 Test caps between them, and they got it right. They erred a year ago when nominating the Kiwi captain ahead of Brian O'Driscoll. Without doubt, 2009 was O'Driscoll's and Ireland's year. It would have represented the crowning accolade for our greatest ever player in a year when he was unquestionably the individual most deserving of the top global award.

Declan Kidney did pick up the coaching gong, but he would be the first to concede his presence on the winning rostrum to O'Driscoll's extraordinary brilliance in the Irish captain's greatest ever year. The same judging panel sold O'Driscoll short.

This time round, though, there is only one standout recipient. With Graham Henry taking the coaching award for the fourth year in six and his team likewise, there can be no argument as to where lies the seat of power.

Whether New Zealand have peaked too early yet again, only time will tell, but given home advantage, allied to the current vast chasm, is there anyone out there who would bet with any confidence against an All Black World Cup win in 2011? I thought not.

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