Thursday 17 October 2019

Tony Ward: Facing down the giants - what Ian Keatley and Conor Murray need to do against Bastareaud and Nonu threat

Ian Keatley of Munster is congratulated by team-mate Conor Murray
Ian Keatley of Munster is congratulated by team-mate Conor Murray
Mathieu Bastareaud. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Let's get one thing clear from the off: I hate everything that Mourad Boudjellal and Toulon stand for. If you want to know why French rugby is a shadow of its former self - this used to be the most exciting rugby-playing nation on Earth - then look no further than the Cote d'Azur.

Yes, there are a number of other sugar-daddy clubs, but three-time European Cup winners Toulon epitomise everything that is rotten about the professional game in France, irrespective of how many titles the Toulon president's bulging wallet manages to buy.

Sadly, it is the way of the world in modern professional sport. The Top 14 in France has become like soccer's Premier League. And Toulon lead the way.

Why develop indigenous players through underage and Academy systems when you can call on el Presidente to take out the cheque book whenever you want and buy whoever from wherever in a blink? It is a mercenary system rotten to the core.

Perhaps it is because of that unashamed background that I find it impossible to warm to the bulldozing nature of Toulon's rugby.

Monsters replace monsters as they simplify what should be the art of hard-yards rugby almost through mass alone.

Munster have 21 full internationals in their squad - and all bar Jaco Taute have won their caps in the green of Ireland.

The ever-revolving door at Toulon makes it hard to do an accurate stock-count, but by my reckoning they have 28 internationals, representing nine different countries.

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It's a very different philosophy.

Whatever your take on it, it's clear that Munster have a massive task on their hands this afternoon as they face down the giants coming their way.

Ma'a Nonu, Toulon. Photo: Sportsfile
Ma'a Nonu, Toulon. Photo: Sportsfile

I'm often asked to compare and contrast the modern game and the game of the amateur days. Certain similarities hold but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

Whether it is more beautiful now is in the eye of the beholder, but perhaps the most obvious way in which rugby has changed since the dawn of professionalism in 1995 is in physique.

What we thought was big in my day is now minuscule. I recall my first time playing the Welsh, in 1978, when their centre pairing of Ray Gravell and Stevie Fenwick were considered to be giants - a midfield pairing of unrivalled physicality at the time.

'Grav' was 5ft 11in and 13ƒst, with the 'Bridgend bombshell' 5lb less and an inch smaller.

Our centres that day were Mike Gibson and Paul McNaughton, with 'Gibbo' 5ft 11in and 12ƒst and 'Macker' the same height but a full stone lighter; 11st 7lb for an international centre - it's unimaginable now.

Today, the Toulon centres Munster will face in the Champions Cup quarter-final are Ma'a Nonu(16st 9lb) and Mathieu Bastareaud (18st 12lb), - the collisions are at a different level of intensity.

So put yourself in Johann van Graan's shoes or, perhaps more pertinently, those of Ian Keatley, Rory Scannell and Sam Arnold and ask how they halt those behemoths when they take the direct route - which is the only way Toulon seem to know.

Toulon have wings of the calibre of JP Pietersen, Bryan Habana and Chris Ashton - all capable of try-scoring magic - but don't appear willing to make the most of their talent.

Of course, I pray we are spared Ashton's idiotic try-scoring flop, much though I admire the former Saracens man's instinctive supporting qualities.

I feel that Munster's hopes will hinge on Keatley's performance. Along with Conor Murray (my Player of the Six Nations), he carries most responsibility, assuming that the Munster pack delivers, which I fully expect them to.

Murray can be guaranteed to take up where he left off against England. The key is in how out-half Keatley manages to frustrate the Toulon centres, who will be champing at the bit.

The last thing Keatley or either Munster centre needs is Bastareaud full on. Defensively, the Reds will have prepared to counter that midfield threat, with the back-row and Murray on high alert.

Of even more importance is how Keatley uses the ball. I make no apologies for drawing comparison with the master, because it was on big European occasions like this that Ronan O'Gara came to the fore.

Despite the occasional glitch, I rate Keatley. But there is a question mark, and it centres on shaping his game to defuse the strengths of the opposition.

In this O'Gara was the master craftsman, with his ability to dangle the carrot through weight of pass to his outside backs.

As a distributor there were few better, yet, because of his all-round kicking skills, the quality of his passing was never fully appreciated.

When Keatley believes fully in himself, there are few better. He is well capable of playing the corners à la ROG, but it is through astute use of ball in hand that the Toulon monsters can be kept at bay.

Munster do not have the Leinster-like resources or midfield precision to run Toulon ragged but simple variation when changing the point of attack, particularly down the 12 and 13 channels, could pay rich a dividend.

So much will depend on how Murray and Keatley use what possession comes their way.

Big European days made O'Gara great, because when it really mattered he stood tall.

Over to you Keats.

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