Tuesday 22 May 2018

Tony Ward: If Munster really believe they are underdogs, they shouldn't turn up

Munster's Cian Bohane, Simon Zebo, Francis Saili, Ian Keatley and Tomas O'Leary
Munster's Cian Bohane, Simon Zebo, Francis Saili, Ian Keatley and Tomas O'Leary
Munster's Keith Earls (SPORTSFILE)
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I am not getting too hung up on the Ireland squad named for the training camp this weekend. It numbers 44, with just four uncapped players in Matt Healy, Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose and Quinn Roux.

It is a preliminary get-together to remind everyone that the season does not end with the Pro12 grand final on May 28.

Ireland face a really tough three-Test trip to South Africa. I wish there was at least one midweek game - I understand why there isn't - as Ireland face a nigh-on impossible task at the tail end of a particularly long hard season.

When any national squad is named, I don't get worked up by the club/province of the players selected. Whether the players all happen to come from the same street in the same town in the same province is absolutely irrelevant provided they are the best players to do the job required by the coach.

Of course I do not agree with every Ireland selection, but not for a minute would I question the integrity of the modern-day national coach, whoever he may be. Fortunately for this generation they are competing in an age of transparency whereby political skullduggery is a thing of the past. No-one gets favours because they play for a particular province.

But back to Schmidt's latest selection now.

There are some names conspicuous in their absence - Chris Henry, Tommy Bowe, Mike McCarthy, Luke Fitzgerald, Nathan White, Marty Moore, James Cronin and Denis Buckley.


Fitzgerald is probably the unluckiest player in Irish rugby given the quantity and variety to his never ending injuries. Bear in mind he is still only 28.

But of that list Buckley is the one hardest done by. His form for Connacht has been exceptional and not just of late.

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Ireland prop Jack McGrath is supporting the Tackle Your Feelings mental health campaign. Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

On current form Jack McGrath (above) is by a distance the outstanding loosehead available to Schmidt but you can argue the toss after that between Buckley, Cian Healy, James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne. Probably in that order.

I need to pinch myself when I recall the times not all that long ago when top-class Irish props (particularly tightheads, granted) were almost as rare as hen's teeth.

One real positive side is the inclusion of Matt Healy, although I was somewhat disheartened when the form attacking player in Irish rugby suggested that his previous camp call (during this Six Nations) involved little communication with the head coach.

He is versatile too given that he was a scrum-half at underage (Vinnie Becker mark two) before shifting to wing before producing that tour de force in Grenoble in only his second outing at full-back.

He is the most potent (and I choose that word carefully) left-sided player available to Schmidt, ahead of Simon Zebo and Fitzgerald. Keith Earls is much more natural on the right.

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Munster's Peter O'Mahony will not tour South Africa with Ireland this summer. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

It is good to see Peter O'Mahony (above) invited along, which suggests to me a role as captain - once he regains full form and fitness - going forward. Rory Best will lead the tour to South Africa but the issue of captaincy will be up again for discussion in the autumn.

In the meantime, attention turns to the final phase of the Pro12, specifically this evening to the Sportsground as arguably the biggest match of the season for both Connacht and Munster (with respect to Grenoble and the Challenge Cup) takes place.

For Munster, it's a must-win hence that sense of circling the wagons emanating down south.

And while an element of siege mentality has long fed into the Munster psyche I would like to think the CJ Stander take on "not being able to play on the Munster name any more" is much closer the mark than Earls' comment to the effect that 'we're back being underdogs and that's where we like being'.

I understand the mind-games at play but if any one of the Munster players seriously believe themselves to be underdogs, then they may as well not turn up.

As a rugby stadium the Sportsground used to be about on par with a graveyard. It is still in need of major renovation yet the addition of the Clan Terrace in particular has made for a much-changed venue, one heaving with atmosphere particularly on big European or inter-pro nights.

The Leinster occasion was special and I suspect this one will be too.

In the aftermath of the Grenoble game I did a run-down on player performances from an Irish perspective. I deliberately left out Bundee Aki because the Kiwi is not yet Ireland-qualified.

But ask me to name the key figure in Connacht's transformation this season beyond Pat Lam and it is unquestionably Aki.

He is already to Connacht what John Langford/Jim Williams were to Munster, what Rocky Elsom/Felipe Contepomi were to Leinster and what Ruan Pienaar is now to Ulster. And to that list of hugely influential imports add the name Isa Nacewa now too.

Aki is a player who ignites that flame in others.

This has all the key ingredients for another belter. It will go down to the wire but given the stakes Munster dare not fail to deliver.

Beyond that I am glued firmly to the fence with defibrillator at the ready.

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