Sport Rugby

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Opportunity now knocks for rookies to stake claims

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What Eusebio and Pele did in selling the beautiful game to the watching world in 1966 and '70, Gareth Edwards did for rugby in '73.

To this day, the Welsh scrum-half's third-minute length-of-the-field touch-down for the Barbarians against the All Blacks is still held universally as the greatest try of all time.

It was the day rugby really registered. Bear in mind that, unlike soccer, there were no four-yearly Rugby World Cups back then. Probably the only equivalent oval-ball event was when the British and Irish Lions went on tour, specifically to New Zealand or South Africa.

The Baa-Baas were, to all intents and purposes, the Lions on Four Nations soil. Invariably they included at least one uncapped player. Now, of course, it is all so different.

The fact that the Barbarians have survived the transition of the game going from amateur to professional is an achievement in itself, but for this proud former black-and-white wearer, it has been a transition at a price.

The Barbarians of the professional era are effectively southern hemisphere renegades on tour. Clearly there is still an exhibition rugby market and credit the legendary Geoff Windsor Lewis and Mickey Steele-Bodger for never giving up the good fight. They have never pretended to be anything other than a scratch conglomeration adhering to the principle of running rugby anywhere, any time, any place.

It has its appeal and while a built-in competitive element is essential to any sporting match, I can still fully understand the attraction. So too will the crowd which flocks along to Thomond Park this evening.

Circumstances have decreed that Declan Kidney must cut his cloth to meet the measure of the upcoming tour. In a sense, it defeats the original purpose of the match, but Kidney is very much a glass-half-full merchant and will treat the occasion and challenge accordingly. To that end he has included four players untried at this level.

For Ulster locks Dan Tuohy and Leinster-bound Ed O'Donoghue as well as provincial colleague, skipper and No 8 Chris Henry, opportunity knocks up front to make a mark at a time when our forward resources are stretched to the limit. Behind the scrum Fergus McFadden gets his chance to stake a claim.

That said, it is conceivable that not one of this starting XV could run out in New Plymouth again for the New Zealand Test in eight days' time. It certainly smacks of a shadow line-up, yet for Rob Kearney (battling Geordan Murphy), Ronan O'Gara (head to head with Jonathan Sexton) and Marcus Horan (looking to put it up to Cian Healy), it is a chance to make a pre-tour mark.

All three back-row forwards this evening -- John Muldoon, Niall Ronan and Henry -- will be looking to impress Gert Smal specifically in the race for the No 6 shirt ahead of the two tour Tests.

There is also the vacant second-row slot, in the absence of Paul O'Connell and Leo Cullen, alongside Donncha O'Callaghan. Here O'Donoghue, Tuohy and, of course, Mick O'Driscoll (on the bench this evening) have it all to prove.

Much, of course, will depend on the injury situation as well as form against the All Blacks in the opening game, but the nucleus of the side tonight could also appear against the Maoris in Rotorua in the penultimate game this day fortnight, so in terms of match practice and unit combinations this match is very relevant.

We have yet to beat the Baa-Baas on home soil. What better place than Limerick this evening to break that stat and provide the best possible springboard for the tricky three weeks ahead?

Irish Independent

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