Monday 23 October 2017

McGrath surges to top of prop tree as new kids on block show they're on right track

Jack McGrath breaks through a tackled by Gabriel Ascarate of Argentina during the first Test of Ireland's summer tour 2014. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Jack McGrath breaks through a tackled by Gabriel Ascarate of Argentina during the first Test of Ireland's summer tour 2014. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was a good day's work in Resistencia – a positive team performance and a first Test win for Ireland on Argentinian soil.

It was far from perfect, but it was certainly encouraging for Joe Schmidt.

The scrum was solid and the line-out dominant, giving the tourists an excellent platform.

That said, Les Kiss will be busy in the next few days given the openings created and line-breaks made by a young Pumas side that was tough and uncompromising but lacking experience.

This Argentina shadow squad has natural ability in spades, with Manuel Montero's try as good a five-pointer as you will see anywhere.

But it must be noted that this was a contest between home-based Argentinians in search of overseas opportunity and seasoned professionals with a few fresh faces looking to give Schmidt some food for thought.

So, while winning was important, the real interest was in how the new kids on the block performed in an alien environment a level up from the Pro12 or European Cup. On most counts, the prognosis was good.

At loosehead, the case for Jack McGrath is well proven. In 12 months he has gone from rookie front-rower to arguably now being our second most effective all-round prop. I bow to the professionalism of Greg Feek and other scrum technicians of that ilk, but if there is any way that the Leinster man can be developed into a temporary tighthead, then it is a route well worth exploring.

It just seems such a waste having our two best props fighting for one place, with one restricted to cameo roles off the bench.

No disrespect to Mike Ross, Marty Moore, Dave Kilcoyne or James Cronin, it's just at this relatively early stage in his development, McGrath looks the real deal, right up there alongside Cian Healy at the top of the propping tree.

The second-row too has signs of becoming a little claustrophobic, with Iain Henderson – excellent with ball in hand – as comfortable packing down at lock or blindside flanker.

Take your choice from Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy, Dave Foley, Henderson or the soon-to-return Donnacha Ryan alongside Paul O'Connell and it makes for some second-row pairing.

While still clearly learning his trade at this level, there is something special about Henderson.

Robbie Diack and Jordi Murphy should also be fairly happy with their contributions, while behind the scrum all four half-backs looked the business.

I would still like to see Ian Madigan line out alongside Johnny Sexton at this level. Sexton and Conor Murray were again the key cogs in Saturday's victory.

Beyond that, Darren Cave had his moments in his first shot at the No 13 shirt. The jury remains out, but certainly the Ulsterman did his prospects no harm.

Andrew Trimble copperfastened his position (in the ongoing absence of Tommy Bowe) as our No 1 wide receiver.

His opportunist try was pure class in terms of defensive reading and the timing of the intercept.

Arguably it represented the key moment too in determining the outcome of the contest.

If the challenge from Schmidt to Simon Zebo was to present a case for serious consideration, then the Munster flier passed with flying colours. He was excellent, both with the ball and without it.

Sadly the same cannot be said of Felix Jones, who failed to really rise to the occasion.

For sure there is still that opening for a shadow full-back to Rob Kearney, with the versatile trio of Craig Gilroy, Rob Henshaw and Jared Payne still key runners.

All told it made for a satisfactory day's work and it sets the squad up nicely for a two-from-two winning return.

The second Test in Tucuman City will be another stiff examination, but I expect Schmidt's men to come through it.

And while the Pumas are nowhere near the level of opposition England encountered in Auckland on Saturday, it keeps Ireland right up there with Stuart Lancaster's squad in terms of development towards next year's World Cup.

As for France? The less said the better. Long gone are the days of wondering which French side will turn up.

Professional and national pride demands that players turn up and give it all they have every time they pull on the shirt. On Saturday, despite a late rally against a rampant Australia, they were a disgrace to jersey and profession.

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