Friday 16 November 2018

Tony Ward: Gerbrandt Grobler signing a major mistake that sends out wrong message

Gerbrandt Grobler. Photo: Sportsfile
Gerbrandt Grobler. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It should have been a great week for Irish rugby what with going into the final weekend in Europe with all four Irish representatives leading their respective pools. It may not end up that way in 24 hours' time but to be in this position is some achievement, one unprecedented in the history of professional rugby.

One issue, however, has dominated and that relates to Gerbrant Grobler. Never in my 30-odd years of playing the game did I ever hear the word 'supplement', never mind 'steroid', even mentioned in a rugby context. Never.

But to suggest I am naive enough to believe it doesn't go on now is of course even more naive again. These are changed times with different values in a much different and increasingly power-driven game.

As someone still involved at underage level, I actively discourage youngsters from using anything beyond blood, sweat and tears to get wherever it is they aspire to go in this great game.

I would like to think my advice is not falling on deaf ears. Do I know for sure? Of course not - how can you other than through testing and, as in the case of Grobler, getting found out?

To cheat through doping is the ultimate sin against the game and against your peer whether team-mate or opposition. Munster in my view were wrong to sign the young South African-born lock, irrespective of who recommended him. Clearly the process at Union level was shoddy to say the least.

Quite whether it is wrong to ban a player for life is another argument for another day but, as someone who despises cheating, whatever its form, the signing of a player on a professional contract - whether from within the system or without - sends a wrong and very distorted message to young, up-and-coming players.


On the field, last weekend's defeat in Paris sets up the now almost ritual deja vu in Thomond Park for Munster. It's must-win before the faithful with a capacity crowd demanding every last ounce to get over that qualifying line. Despite thumping Leicester last weekend, a Castres win would defy logic and more importantly the effort it has taken the two-time winners to get this far.

They are by no means the finished article and, as exemplified last weekend at Racing when Conor Murray put them ahead and just minutes left on the clock, they have still to learn to close out games of this magnitude and intensity.

To that end, the roles of the half-backs are obviously critical and in Murray they have the best scrum-half this side of the equator. They have too in Ian Keatley an out-half and game manager who, despite so much more positivity this season, is still not hitting his full potential.

He is for me, and thankfully for Johann van Graan and Felix Jones too, the best out-half of the three available (four if you include Rory Scannell when that need arises).

Whoever was unfortunate enough to follow in the footsteps of Ronan O'Gara was always going to be charged with operating at that level. Mission impossible. However, I would draw comparison between Keatley and another Munster No 10 of that era who followed the same route through Galway to Limerick - Paul Warwick.

Warwick was a hugely undervalued player in his time at Munster but outside of O'Gara there have been few better in that playmaking role.

Keatley is in the same bracket and an extremely modest young man; however, I would like to see him at least attempt to adopt that same ruthless (bordering on arrogant) demeanour of O'Gara when playing at the top.

By that I mean that when something goes wrong, just get on with it. Don't shake or drop the head, don't test an imaginary wind as body language can reveal a multitude to opposition and spectators alike.

The beauty of playing out-half, or first receiver in modern parlance, is that you don't get time to dwell on a mistake - unlike the back-three for example.

The out-half is constantly involved and if I have an objective criticism it is that Keatley still lacks the conviction to be as good as he can be. He has all the bits and when the stars are aligned he is up there with the best.

Why else would Joe Schmidt have him as back-up to Johnny Sexton since Paddy Jackson became unavailable?

Recently when discussing Jack Carty's role at Connacht, I made reference to Eric Elwood as the type of game-manager with presence he should try to emulate. I would repeat that parallel to Keatley who served under the former Ireland out-half in his time at the Sportsground.

When Elwood walked on to the pitch, his entire demeanour, whether verbal or through gesticulation, oozed control. Indeed I wish I had been consistently that way myself in my playing days.

In 2005, I wrote: "They were heroes throughout the field, but in particular the contribution of Cian Healy and David Gilchrist up front, and Ian Keatley behind, were again immense." It's an extract from my match report of the 2005 Leinster Senior Schools Cup final when Belvedere bridged a gap of 33 years beating Blackrock (including Luke Fitzgerald, Ian Madigan, Niall Morris and Vasya Artemiev) to take the cup back to Great Denmark Street for the first time since 1972.

The wearer of the 1972 No 10 jersey was one Ollie Campbell. Speaking to him recently about Keatley, he said: "I have huge admiration for Ian, he has had to work for everything he has got, and is now beginning to get the reward he deserves. As they say, rugby doesn't make character, it reveals it".

Irish Independent

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