Tuesday 17 September 2019

Tony Ward: Australia will face strongest Ireland squad ever to leave our shores

Two of Leinster’s starlets, Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose, are sure to figure prominently for Ireland in Australia. Photo: Sportsfile
Two of Leinster’s starlets, Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose, are sure to figure prominently for Ireland in Australia. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

If we had any doubt as to which route Joe Schmidt might go for this summer tour then the announcement of a full-strength squad of 32 thirty two provided us with that answer in the most assertive way.

This is a Grand Slam-winning squad picked to follow in the footsteps of England (pre-2003 RWC win in Australia) in the early noughties, with Japan 2019 the ultimate goal for this group of Irish players. this time around.

It is an incredibly powerful squad; the strongest ever to leave these shores, and I include all our World Cup campaigns in that.

The only issue I see relates to injury and specifically the situation relative to Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw.

On the basis of lack of match fitness, and no game-time available before the first Test, the case for Devin Toner alongside James Ryan and a continuation of the Garry Ringrose/Bundee Aki combination in midfield is fairly straightforward.

On the assumption that Henderson is ruled out, opportunity then knocks to blood Munster-bound Tadgh Beirne in the match-day 23.

Schmidt could also look at the back-row, where Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan are pushing Peter O'Mahony and CJ Stander for starting spots.

With the exception of Beirne for Henderson, it would leave the Twickenham squad entirely in situ to face the Wallabies in the opening Test, with places set to be lost only thereafter.

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It has all the makings of a hugely competitive three-match series. Time to ditch the 'friendly' moniker for sure.


On the club front, Leinster showed us again on Saturday how they have taken the provincial game to a new and unprecedented level in this country.

There have been some great individuals and some great Leinster teams, but as a collective in terms of strength in depth, quality and age profile this looks the most complete.

I say looks because only the test of time will provide the definitive barometer, but on all available evidence, Leo's charges are the real deal and currently a class apart in northern hemisphere rugby.

Before Saturday's PRO14 final we wondered how this group of 2018 might compare with the back-to-back Champions Cup-winning squads of 2011 and 2012.

Well, for 80 minutes at Lansdowne Road we got our answer and in the most emphatic way.

Despite a mere eight points separating the sides at the death, Leinster were comfortable throughout in taking this title against a brilliant Welsh side that for the second year running left nothing behind them in Dublin 4.

Against Racing, in a dog fight, Leinster found a way across the winning line. It may have been low on pyrotechnics but it was a very impressive tactical victory.

Beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder and, while for some the Munster PRO14 semi-final which followed had that pizzazz, I thought it was low on quality and appreciation - chiefly from the team in red.

By contrast, Saturday's final was a humdinger. Scarlets are a class act for which Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones deserve enormous credit.

They play the game the right way and while in the final analysis they came up short, they contributed enormously to yet another Guinness PRO12/14 final that highlighted why this competition is going from strength to strength.

I wish there was a way other than the conference system but given the number of participating teams - set to increase again, I have little doubt - PRO14 CEO Martin Anayi and tournament director David Jordan are doing quite a job.

On Saturday, Leinster were again sublime from No 1 to 23.

I couldn't help thinking before kick-off that a year and a bit ago the Leinster back-row would most probably have read: Sean O'Brien, Josh van der Flier and Jamie Heaslip.

Twelve months on and it's Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Conan keeping both Jordi Murphy and Max Deegan out. It is an embarrassment of riches but equally an accurate reflection of what is coming through the system and how it is being handled from the bottom up.

Does it mean Leinster will monopolise domestic and European competition for the immediate future? Of course not. To suggest so would be delusional.

The biggest battle ahead is psychological and practical in terms of managing that abundance of playing resources.

To that end, the chemistry in the Belfield boot-room has been amazing.

Girvan Dempsey's input will certainly be missed. Bath have chosen well. But in Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and John Fogarty they possess an informed and pragmatic coaching team whose guiding principle is built on humility and hard work.

Unlike the Champions Cup semi-final at the same venue, and despite missing Jonathan Davies and John Barclay, Scarlets delivered a quality performance. I love their finger-tip handling and emphasis on space. But what Leinster have that Scarlets don't is an ability to squeeze tight.

It is a full-court press based on relentless intensity and when they hit that vital red zone the recycling and hard-yard carrying increases in intensity.

Invariably they come away with points and when it comes to going for the jugular only Saracens are in the same league.

Tries either side of the interval epitomised that collective mindset. Credit Scarlets for coming back in the manner they did, with Johnny McNicholl the consistent spark.

As for Leinster, Johnny Sexton was man of the match. There was nothing new about that and it was a difficult decision to argue against.

He was inspirational again when it really mattered, but in all honesty who wasn't? The second-rows were outstanding and then along came Scott Fardy, albeit in the back-row.


The ever-industrious Sean Cronin was top-notch, so too Conan whose work ethic was matched only by Toner and Ringrose.

James Lowe and Jordan Larmour were pure class, while Rob Kearney was rock-solid at the back.

However, can we ease back on the euphoria relative to Larmour's pick-up try? That is what he is there to do and why he is now a first-choice wing. The real class in that score was the opportunism based on turning defence into attack through the chip, chase and speed that followed.

And then along comes Joey Carbery too. His outside break for Conan's try, much like Larmour's pick-up, comes naturally. But that break, leaving an outside centre in his tracks, oozed class.

He has the potential to be Ireland's next out-half but I repeat red, not white, green or blue, is the most logical route to get him there.

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