Sunday 21 January 2018

Tony Ward: It's a long time since Irish rugby has had so many natural leaders

Paul O'Connell is tackled by Sergio Parisse in 2012
Paul O'Connell is tackled by Sergio Parisse in 2012
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's a physics term - a subject at which I was brutal at school, I might add - but momentum is defined as the quantity of motion an object has.

Well, in both literal and metaphorical terms I would like to think Ireland are a rugby team on the move.

Anyone who has played in the Six Nations will place heavy emphasis on that search for early momentum.

Tommy Bowe is the latest, this week stressing: "We want to silence the crowd, not let them get their tails up, it's all about building early momentum."

Start as you mean to go on will be abiding mantra, and in that key respect Ireland's fixture list is an advantage.

I'm not suggesting Joe Schmidt's men will get an easy ride at the Stadio Olimpico. Once beaten, twice shy, or so we hope.

Two years ago at the magnificently appointed former Olympic stadium in Rome, we lost to the better organised, more highly motivated Italians for the first time since the Five Nations became Six.

The Azzurri deserved their victory, which followed on from a get-out-of-jail Ronan O'Gara drop-goal just down the road at the Stadio Flaminio two years before.

Rory Best is among the unprecedented core of natural leaders in the Ireland team
Rory Best is among the unprecedented core of natural leaders in the Ireland team

Just six of the starting line up from 2013 - Rob Kearney, Conor Murray, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien - run on again now. By any standard - and particularly Ireland's - that is some turn over in personnel in such a short period of time.

Lowest

That defeat was without doubt Ireland's lowest point in the Six Nations, and it marked the end of the Declan Kidney regime.

Things are different under Schmidt, but that loss is a reminder of what Italy can do if given that early opportunity to establish momentum on their own patch.

Schmidt has named the strongest, most experienced starting line-up available, yet the team is without Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton - part of the backbone to the side.

The call at out-half is a big one. I would have included Ian Madigan on the basis of him being too good to leave out, even if he will appear either at 10 or 12 on the hour.

That said I do get the rationale behind Ian Keatley's selection certainly in terms of form, game management and game-time, albeit for a Munster side very much in transition. I rate Keatley and do get the impact argument in favour of Madigan wearing No 22 as well.

One point made by Schmidt at the team announcement that is overplayed is this stuff about having an advantage through sharing the same province, ie, Conor Murray and Keatley at Munster. Any half-back worth his salt can play alongside any other half-back, irrespective of team of origin.

In a different era it had a relevance, but not now.

I do accept the premise put forward by Schmidt surrounding game-management. Madigan has that X-factor but Keatley is the more highly tuned orchestrator given his superior game-time at out-half.

That was always set to be the litmus test for Madigan against the Saxons and it was clear that he came up short as orchestrator-in-chief at Irish Independent Park last weekend, although he was not helped by an insipid forward performance.

All things being equal my preference would be for Madigan, but they are not, and here I respect the pragmatic rather than instinctive call made by the main man.

Beyond that the remainder is pretty much upon expected lines with Jack McGrath and Mike Ross on either side of Rory Best, but with Marty Moore pushing Ross mighty close.

In the back-row, in the enforced absence of Heaslip (and for sure he will be missed, awaking those who criticise when he is not 'doing a Billy Vunipola' every time he touches the ball to the enormous void he leaves behind), Jordi Murphy switches from the flank to his underage position of No 8.

Again it is the right call in the circumstances with Jack Conan taking the appropriate 'small steps' at this stage in his development.

Murray's return is timely because here for sure is an Irish captain in the making.

Indeed, it is some time since we have had a team loaded with so many natural leaders. From Best through Paul O'Connell, to Peter O'Mahony, Murray and Rob Kearney, we have guys comfortable when asked to call the shots in the white heat of battle.

The value cannot be overstated. Throw in Johnny Sexton and you are talking a serious leadership spine, perhaps our strongest ever.

For Keatley, the message and I suspect modus operandi will be 'easy as you go'.

The eagerly-awaited return of O'Brien provides a different type of leadership. Quiet by nature but a human wrecking ball with leather in hand.

Two years ago we were loose and ill-disciplined, culminating in five penalties kicked by the hosts, and three yellow cards conceded (Brian O'Driscoll, Donnacha Ryan and Murray).

The Italian game has regressed since promotion to the Six Nations but the one consistent has been the ferocity, physicality and cohesion up front.

Today will be no different. Sergio Parisse is back after missing last year's defeat in Dublin, and he adds a different threat entirely.

Some 75,000 will pack into an amazing stadium. It is the perfect rugby Colosseum.

Cool heads will be essential as that search for momentum gets underway.

Take Ireland to find it.

 

Sunday shambles killing Six Nations traditions

Friday night Six Nations games are here to stay, following the announcement of the 2016 and 2017 fixtures.

I have no problem with that whatsoever. My preference would be for standard Saturday afternoon games across the board, as in days of yore, but television demands dictate otherwise.

Saturday evening kick-offs (from 5.0 on) bring a new dynamic to the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown, and I do believe Friday night games have that potential.

But that is not the issue. My problem is with Sunday matches. Here, the laugh is on the genuine supporters who attend these games, which are dictated by TV gurus.

I don't see too much need in wasting space outlining all the issues arising through Sunday afternoon Six Nations rugby on the road. It is a nightmare.

A large part of this great tribal tournament is the atmospheric build-up, whether in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Rome, Paris, Dublin and yes even London.

Now, through Sunday TV demands, that tradition is close to dead.

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