Thursday 12 December 2019

Tony Ward: Derby clash the perfect opportunity for rivals to put critics in their place

Leinster and Munster can set tone for all four provinces as 'real' season kicks into gear

The flak Leinster coach Matt O'Connor has received for importing Jimmy Gopperth and playing him ahead of Ian Madigan flies in the face of all rational judgment. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
The flak Leinster coach Matt O'Connor has received for importing Jimmy Gopperth and playing him ahead of Ian Madigan flies in the face of all rational judgment. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So as all roads head to D4 and the 'real' start to the rugby season in this part of the world, it's time for an intake of breath.

It is still early days, I know, but if pushed for a pecking order of the four Irish provinces right now, I would say that Leinster and Ulster (despite losing in Italy) are ahead of Munster and Connacht, with little to choose between them all.

A single point separates the Irish quartet in the Pro12 table, with Connacht leading the way having taken three wins from four. Their loss in Glasgow was no surprise. With due respect to the pace-setting Ospreys, Gregor Townsend's ever-improving Scots are the most complete squad in the league - and by a distance on current form. To score three tries there was an achievement in itself.

But the real challenge for Pat Lam's much more competitive unit comes in how they deal with Cardiff at the Sportsground next up. The balloon may have lost some gas in Scotland but the opportunity exists to get it back to full competitive capacity come Friday. If the new vibe emanating from the west is to be taken seriously, then this is must-win territory.

For Ulster, the trip to Parma is best forgotten. Although Zebre look marginally the better of two distinctly average Italian sides, Ulster will rue this defeat later in the season.


Having reviewed the incident surrounding Declan Fitzpatrick's dismissal several times, it was at best a very harsh call by the TMO and referee Peter Fitzgibbon. Yes, Fitzpatrick did attempt to land a punch while wrestling on the ground but it was on the back of clear provocation.

The prop deserved a yellow card perhaps but red was over the top, and with it coming just ten minutes in, it left Ulster with a mountain to climb. Not for a minute am I condoning the use of the fist, but common sense and proper reading of a run-of-the-mill rugby situation failed to prevail.

Meanwhile, the countdown is on as Leinster and Munster prepare for the widely acknowledged kick-off to the rugby season. With Sam and Liam safely returned to their most familiar homes, it's time for the oval code to take centre stage and blue v red is as appetising as it gets.

At the RDS on Friday, Leinster showed definite signs that they are a squad on the up. The post-Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll era is under way. They started well with a high-intensity opening quarter, lost their way somewhat on either side of the interval and then closed it out in the final 20, with the bench playing a significant role.

Matt O'Connor has in a sense inherited a poisoned chalice, for whoever followed Joe Schmidt was destined to find himself on the sharp end of coaching comparison. But so far I like what I see of O'Connor, specifically the manner in which he is handling the transition between coaches and eras.

The criticism I read and hear from so-called Leinster supporters at times beggars belief. Yes, he has tightened defence perhaps a little at the expense of extravagant back play but that's called reality.

The flak he takes for importing Jimmy Gopperth and playing him ahead of Ian Madigan flies in the face of all rational judgment, and that is coming from one who would have Madigan in his side regardless.

Consider the options you have, with Gordon D'Arcy a natural inside-centre and alternatives to beat the band in Noel Reid, Brendan Macken, Fergus McFadden and, hopefully, once he is back to full fitness, Luke Fitzgerald. Watch too for Stevie Crosbie as a playmaking inside-centre.

Yet O'Connor (I am sure in tandem with Schmidt) runs with a midfield three of Gopperth, Madigan and D'Arcy at ten, 12 and 13. That's sensible, low-risk experimentation in my book and, despite the odd glitch, it happens to be working.

Beyond that, two players really putting up their hands for November Test inclusion are Rhys Ruddock and Marty Moore. With Peter O'Mahony soon to return and Sean O'Brien currently out of the equation, Ruddock is a very real alternative in the back-row to face the might of the Springboks and Wallabies in the autumn window.

A quick mention too of that Leinster impact bench, specifically the Byrne brothers, Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and Luke McGrath.

McGrath and Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion will soon be challenging Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss for the back-up shirt to Conor Murray. Both are rookies but look to have the bits and pieces (not least that cutting break to keep opposing back-rows on red alert) to compete at the very top sooner rather than later.

As for Munster? They were poor again on Saturday where 'Fortress Thomond' is now anything but.

There is no crisis - yet. Again I emphasise the need for patience on and off the field.

There will be no sympathy from blue-clad supporters or players come Saturday - nor would Anthony Foley's charges want that - but in a time of adversity, what an opportunity the Munster men have this weekend to make a statement in defence of the coach and the newly-assembled management structure.


It would be wrong to suggest Munster were bullied at the breakdown by the Ospreys but they were certainly matched - and that, for any opposition pack, particularly in Thomond, is a victory of sorts.

On that foundation, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar won the half-back battle convincingly.

Murray is a very good call as captain even if O'Mahony and Paul O'Connell are alongside on duty but there is a crying need for more consistent authority from Ian Keatley as playmaker-in-chief.

Beyond that, apart from Simon Zebo, the lack of bite is scary. I will deal with that and more later in the week.


Exeter and Glasgow pointing the way forward

One of the real pluses as player and scribe is having the opportunity to visit grounds the length and breadth of the planet. Needless to say, the variety is stark.

Indeed, I was quite taken aback when touring New Zealand for the first time in 1987 at just how primitive facilities were back then.

I remember togging out as a replacement for a World Cup game in Wellington and having to do so in the showers, such was the push on space.

With professionalism has come a global improvement in facilities for training and playing. That is of course as it should be.

These thoughts came back to mind as I noted the form and progress made by Exeter and Glasgow in their respective leagues.

As regular readers of these pages will know, visits to Sandy Park and Scotstoun in recent seasons have blown this observer away. In both cases the overall impression is of community involvement, and clubs /districts on the move.

It comes as no surprise whatsoever to see these sides now challenging at the top end of Pro12 and Premiership Rugby, with Glasgow boasting four wins from four and Exeter just one win less.

The bottom line sees hard work off the field being replicated on the field and with results now following.

And while it may have slipped under the radar, congratulations to Munster Schools on beating Leinster in Cork on Saturday to lift the interprovincial title for the first time since 2003 and first since 1973 when all four provinces were last involved.

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