Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Ward: Homegrown talent can beat odds on uneven playing field

The likes of Jack O’Donoghue have stepped up to the plate for Munster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
The likes of Jack O’Donoghue have stepped up to the plate for Munster. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The fixtures continue to come hot and heavy as the cream of European rugby (with the odd exception) go at it with all guns blazing over the next two weekends.

Take out the bottom side in each Pool - Racing 92 (who gave up the chase long ago), Zebre (who shouldn't be in the competition anyway), Sale Sharks, Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs - and it leaves 15 of the 20 starters still in the scrap for those precious eight knockout places.

The Champions Cup remains the most complete competition outside of the international arena.

The English and French still have the lion's share of the pie under the revamped TV arrangement when the tournament was remodelled in summer 2014, but those who forecast the end of the road for the other competing nations have been wide of the mark.

In financial terms, it is certainly not a level playing pitch. The advantage is with the Anglo-French - backed by hill, wind and sun - but the talent coming through both the schools and youth systems in Ireland has to be seen to be understood.

Certainly there's a chance the title could return to Ireland for the first time since 2012, whereas this time last year the Irish challenge was already dead and buried, on the back of an injury-plagued World Cup.


With no Irish presence in the last eight - and we should acknowledge that we had been spoilt in that regard - it was all doom and gloom going into the 2016 Six Nations.

Twelve months on and the spirit is back. From Anthony Foley's sad passing to Soldier Field in Chicago through the Wallaby win in the face of adversity in Dublin and on to this European campaign now, it's been a reinvigorating period for Irish rugby.

We are no world beaters, but once we carry that Irish work ethic onto the field, then the raw material is in place to be ultra-competitive every time.

I was critical of the player welfare system over the festive period and I stand by that criticism, but I do understand the principle of wrapping elite players in cotton wool.

It is the fixtures scheduling that needs to be addressed to ensure that the cream of professional rugby is available for the plum domestic fixtures on the Irish rugby calendar.

But back to matters immediate. I still believe that Leinster have the greatest strength in depth and best balanced game to threaten the likes of Saracens, Clermont, Wasps and Toulon at the business end.

That said and irrespective of the pathetic Racing performance in Paris last Saturday, I love what is going on in Munster under Rassie Erasmus.

The buzz is back and that fire in the belly we take for granted is being matched by talent and sensible direction on the field. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of the new generation of leaders in red.

That package doesn't guarantee success but it's one hell of a platform for Munster to kick on from.

Without a doubt their clash at Scotstoun today is the match of the weekend. Along with Connacht, Glasgow under Gregor Townsend have produced the most refreshing brand of winning rugby in the Pro12 over the last few years.

I love Townsend's approach and have no doubt he will make a positive impact on Scotland when he takes the Test reins from Vern Cotter in the summer.

Townsend was a free spirit as a player, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a free spirit on the sideline.

For the opposite side of the coin, look at Mick McCarthy: he was a no-nonsense, ruthless centre-back with a penchant for booting clearances - and opposition forwards - into Row Z, yet the football he oversaw as Ireland manager was aesthetic in the extreme.

Erasmus, a former forward himself, is positive in encouraging freedom of expression with Munster as a coach.

There is a middle ground, though. The lessons from the Rob Penney era have certainly been learned.

Perming two quality locks from three, with Billy Holland missing out, is a tough call that had to be made. Losing the in-form Tommy O'Donnell is a massive blow, yet Jack O'Donoghue's youthful exuberance is a big asset in his stead. O'Donoghue and Jean Kleyn will not be found wanting.

Meanwhile, John Cooney's switch from nine to ten will be the key piece in the Connacht quest for all five points against Zebre at the Sportsground, while the loss of scrum-half Ruan Pienaar in Exeter could prove the end of the European line for Ulster.

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