Saturday 20 January 2018

Tony Ward: I have no issue with Heaslip being reselected - but he, like many others, owe the head coach one

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Ireland started the Six Nations in the running for three trophies and, thanks largely to 50 listless minutes, we are already out of two of them. Losing the chance at both Grand Slam and Triple Crown at Murrayfield was a high price to pay for what was a most 'un-Joe Schmidt-like' performance.

They say you reap what you sow and the Scots certainly did that when coming back in the final stretch to take a game that had appeared to be slipping away once Ireland found their rhythm. In that 30-minute period we scored 14 unanswered points and looked like the team that had been so impressive in the Autumn series.

Can we get back to where we left off against the Wallabies?

Of course we can, but there's a brutish physical and psychological battle to be fought in the Stadio Olimpico this afternoon. All the talk in the build-up has been of respect for Italian rugby, of them beating the Springboks, and of Conor O'Shea. That is as it should be but, behind closed doors, there will be little doubt in any player's mind about what is needed today.

First and foremost comes a performance boiling with energy and physicality from the first whistle.

That will provide the foundation for the result - particularly if we can enjoy a much more productive lineout - while four tries are also imperative if we are to launch an attack on the remainder of the competition for the one trophy we can still win - the Six Nations championship itself.

Italian rugby still has a way to go if it is to compete consistently at the highest level and yet if there is one team against whom the mantra of earning the right to go wide applies it is the Azzurri.

It is all to easy to follow the warped logic of going around the juggernaut that is the Italian pack rather than meeting its clear and obvious force head-on.

After what transpired in Edinburgh, where the scrum alone was up to scratch, you can take it as read that the emphasis this week - even with such a short turn-around - will have centred on meeting fire with fire.

Passion still has a very important part to play in rugby - witness our own performances against the All Blacks and, more particularly, the Wallabies in November. Whatever the Italians might lack in class they are, much like the Pumas, a very passionate and very proud rugby-playing, sporting nation.

Losing eats into confidence and, lest anyone forget, we have lost two of our last three internationals. So today is about going back to basics, doing the simple things well, and building the foundation from there.

It is essential we get the lineout back to where it was as a consistent source of primary possession. Cian Healy and Donnacha Ryan have been reinstated to do what each does best, albeit in their different ways.

Healy will be given the guts of an hour to do that door-bashing role and, rest assured, Jack McGrath will be ready to take on that mantle when Healy has emptied the tank.

For Ryan the role is in getting down and getting dirty. The former Munchin's and Tipperary man is made for days and games like this. He knows no other way. There is also the impact factor whereby Ultan Dillane will provide the added second row mobility when the need arises. Ryan will bring that mongrel in him to the fight - with the onus on Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Rory Best, seasoned campaigners with some 237 caps between them, to up their own level of performance from last week.

I have no issue whatsoever with Heaslip being reselected and, like so many others around him, he owes the head coach one.

My point in midweek questioning his reselection evolved as much around CJ Stander as the long-established Ireland No 8. We all know what damage Stander can do and what impact he can make as first ball-carrier from the base of the scrum.

That innate dynamism is more difficult to harvest from the side of the scrum where other factors, chiefly line of support, come into play.

We have an exceptional back row in place but we should do whatever it takes to utilise the powerful-running Munster No 8 at his best - and a simple switch between Heaslip and Stander in attacking scrum territory is the most obvious adjustment.

If nothing else it asks defensive questions of the opposition back row and halves. A simple adjustment that could pay rich dividends. If the Scots can slip a centre into the lineout with the minimum fuss, surely the slightest switch between 6 and 8 for us is well worth a go.

Heaslip has many strings but busting the gain line, thereby providing forward momentum like Stander can, is not one.

At half back Paddy Jackson stepped up to the plate again for Johnny Sexton but Conor Murray was quiet. It appeared as if the Glasgow experience and all that entailed had, despite all the pre-match denials, got inside his head. He has been the essence of consistency as a leader and must impose himself in that key respect again today.

Beyond that, Robbie Henshaw (one of the few Irish to shine) and Garry Ringrose are rightly retained. The skipper was bang on the money in midweek when he suggested the comparison between Ringrose and Brian O'Driscoll come to an end.

Yes, they have both worn 13 for the same school, province and country, but they are very different in make up.

Ringrose has the potential to make a similar impact but whereas O'Driscoll (like Stander) was dynamic and exceptionally explosive off the mark, Ringrose is more like another Blackrock, Leinster and Ireland centre great Brendan Mullin in terms of playing style.

The comparisons with O'Driscoll are doing him no favours. That said, he is a class act in the making and I expect him to fully express that opposite Michele Campagnaro today.

In the back three it's as you were although I thought Schmidt might go for Tommy Bowe on the basis of an aerial bombardment early on.

Instead, and despite three changes to the Italian pack, it is clear where the battle lines will be drawn and at their hottest. Make no mistake, that right to run will be hard earned.

The inclusion of Craig Gilroy - though somewhat surprising (and of course Josh van der Flier too) - flags a scenic route very much on the agenda in the final straight presuming the heavy artillery have done their stuff.

It smacks of common sense given the nature of the opposition. The plan will be to engage Sergio Parisse defensively and once the scrum stays consistent and the lineout improves dramatically from Murrayfield, it's got to be a five-point mission.

Take Ireland to return to winning ways with a maximum return.

Irish Independent

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