Thursday 17 October 2019

Tony Ward: 'Collective performance of substance is badly needed ahead of Cardiff'

France's Teddy Thomas. Photo: Getty Images
France's Teddy Thomas. Photo: Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Growing up as a sports fanatic in the 1960s and '70s it was Real Madrid, Ajax and Brazil who stoked my fire.

I would like to say Leeds too but that would be blinkered on my part so we'll stick with the aesthetically proven and the teams that inspired this south-Dublin wannabe to be part of 'The Beautiful Game'.

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As has been well recorded, my loyalties were split between the round and oval balls.

In rugby, as a supporter and player, it was the French and the Welsh who made the code equally appealing in my eyes.

Both nations were winners but what made it special was the pizazz.

They earned the right to go wide but when they did, it was with style and panache.

Even still the pre-professionalism names trip off the tongue: JPR (Williams), Gerald (Davies), 'Grav' (Ray Gravell), Stevie Fenwick, JJ (Williams), BJ (Barry John), 'Benny' (Phil Bennett) and of course the most complete rugby player of them all, Gareth (Edwards).

For Les Bleus there was Jean-Michel Aguirre, Serge Blanco, Roland Bertranne, Philippe Sella, Jo Maso, Patrice Lagisquet, Didier Camberabero, Franck Mesnel, Jean-Baptiste Lafond, Pierre Berbizier and of course Le Petit Caporal Jacques Fouroux (the original little general).

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We travelled to Stade Colombes and Parc des Princes with trepidation in those days. There was excitement but also a fear of kicking away cheap possession (the mere thought of box-kicking would have been abhorrent) and what the exhilarating French would do on the counter.

Fast-forward to this decade and not alone have they lost their way in terms of winning but the French rugby-playing style has been ugly in the extreme.

The two games I dread each year are the Italians (although travelling away is for cultural reasons more than tolerable) as it is a non-contest, and the fixture against France.

Playing the French, whether here or in the Stade de France, has become an annual dog-eat-dog war of attrition with the only positive from an Irish perspective the fact we are regularly winning a match we almost always lost.

Maybe I too am becoming a victim of our success but I have come to dread this 80 minutes of 'murder-ball-bash' every year.

But maybe, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon if we are to take Toulouse and Racing 92 as a pre-Six Nations indicator to a changing domestic mindset.

In the opening 40 minutes against the Welsh and the comfortable win a fortnight ago over the Scots, little green shoots - specifically through Thomas Ramos, Yoann Huget, Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont - were showing.

The jury is still out on the best midfield combination and it would be nice to see Teddy Thomas involved out wide, although Damian Penaud also has great potential.

Miracle upon miracles the French, through Jacques Brunel, are fielding the same starting line-up for the second game running.

As for us? With the exception of Robbie Henshaw it is probably the strongest starting 15 we can field at this time.

We are in 'must-win' territory but even that is not enough. We have not played with any sort of conviction in the three rounds to date.

Of course the players will circle the wagons and trot out the 'all is dandy' line when questioned about collective confidence and/or morale.

What else would you expect them to say or do when asked to comment on team-mates, friends and most pertinently peer rivals?

There is nothing that is beyond fixing but a collective performance of substance is badly needed. Win with conviction and the trek to Cardiff takes on a new meaning entirely.

The goal for tomorrow should be that every one of the 23 players delivers an individual performance appropriate to the best that he can be.

From that the various units will grow in confidence and the type of performance we took for granted six months ago will follow as sure as night and day.

In order to get that mojo back we need every individual to question himself in moments of crisis and leave it to management to look after the rest.

We have a talented squad in which the whole, at this point in this Six Nations, does not represent the sum of its parts.

The head coach too has a 'shape-up' role to play.

Only he knows if he is in the same place psychologically as 12 months ago. We are still two Six Nations wins from three in a World Cup year with everything to play for.

Alex Ferguson regrets declaring his Old Trafford departure ahead of his final season. For Joe there must be no such afterthought.

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