Wednesday 13 December 2017

Tony Ward: Master Joe Schmidt has arsenal to gun down Stuart Lancaster bombers

Ireland’s world-beating half-backs can edge monumental collision as wily strategists lock horns

England’s Stuart Lancaster is one of the outstanding coaches in world rugby – but Ireland can beat his side tomorrow
England’s Stuart Lancaster is one of the outstanding coaches in world rugby – but Ireland can beat his side tomorrow
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I received an otherwise well-intentioned email accusing me of being a bit of a Victor Meldrew of late. Maybe the sender had a point - after all we are two wins from two in our Championship defence, with England hitching their Chariot outside the Aviva tomorrow for a couple of hours of atmospheric mayhem and a potential Grand Slam decider.

I can be accused of many things but moaning for the sake of moaning ain't one of them. I have no desire to rehash some of the big issues confronting the game but like everybody I yearn for a classic 'auld enemy' encounter tomorrow.

Does it matter if we get a re-run of the French game? Probably not to most people, providing the outcome is the same.

Certainly three wins out of three would leave Ireland in pretty rude health as the World Cup - the real barometer - comes into view.

Do we want our brutishness to be more brutish than theirs, or do we want our most skilled players to display more skill than theirs?

As ever the truth probably lies somewhere in between, yet why do I have this feeling that the destination has become the be all and end all, with the journey taken of little or no relevance?

For sure against the French the lone satisfaction was in the result. If that's the Meldrew in me, then guilty as charged.


As someone who could kick the leather of the ball when required (I remember winning a Munster Senior Cup final with Garryowen, beating Young Munster 3-0 and I doubt the wings received a pass all day) I would be some hypocrite to be demanding flash harry stuff at the highest level, particularly in a game of this magnitude, but would I like that? Of course I would.

Will we get it? Most unlikely but am I looking forward to the occasion? You betcha.

Ireland against England is special. I have often rehashed the story about the team meeting in our Kensington hotel the night before the 1978 clash in Twickenham, but it's worth telling again.

John Moloney was captain and when he had completed his measured wrap, he asked if anyone had anything to add. You could have heard a pin drop in that room.

"Aye, I have," piped Stewart McKinney in his distinctive Dungannon lilt, "these guys think we're mad crazy Paddies, let loose for a few hours to kick lumps out of them and wreak absolute havoc . . ." - you could cut the tension with a knife - "let's not disappoint."

Perhaps that sentiment was more relevant back then, yet I can easily imagine Paul O'Connell uttering words to similar effect tomorrow - despite the ultra-professional preparation that's now in it.

For many reasons, put a white jersey in front of an Ireland team and it has that effect.

'Prepare for the occasion but play the opposition' will be the mantra of two exceptional coaches in Stuart Lancaster and Joe Schmidt.

Aside from Steve Hansen, who has enjoyed outstanding success since taking up the New Zealand reins, from Graham Henry, Lancaster and Schmidt have proved themselves to be the outstanding coaches in world rugby.

I particularly like the way both go about their business. Low-key, down-to-earth, media friendly but without ever giving anything away.

I sincerely hope tomorrow's 129th meeting between the sides is not the chess game so widely predicted. It certainly has the potential to turn out that way, but while England bring similar power and physicality as the French, they also have a different intellect steering their course in the background.

There is much more about England than France. They have discovered - by accident rather than design - a modern-day freak (a player who can create space through quick feet) in centre Jonathan Joseph.

The Bath factor - where former Ireland defence coach Mike Ford is now at the helm - is enormous, with Ford's son George at out-half and Anthony Watson on the wing, as well as Joseph.

The pack is as gnarled and physically uncompromising as ever, with a leader of very real substance in Chris Robshaw, a man very much in Lancaster's image

The Harlequins flanker walks the walk, much like Jamie Heaslip in the same unobtrusive way. Heaslip's loss is massive, with England the main beneficiary of Pascal Pape's malicious act.

Scrum-half Ben Youngs is another player on fire; his head-to-head with Conor Murray will be fascinating, given the completely different ways each influences his team's mechanics.

Today's atmosphere is made for Murray. He is the original ice-cool Steve Silvermint. In Murray and Johnny Sexton, we have arguably the most complete half-back pairing in world rugby. Maybe the All Blacks when Daniel Carter is fully fit, but beyond that I cannot identify better.

Murray and Sexton were regal in their simplicity and efficiency against the French. When either kicks, it is with purpose, precision and variety making the chase so much easier and far more effective in turning defences around.

Expect Ford in particular to seek a similar level of variety through the boot. Remarkably England came second to Italy on territory and possession but the final score left little doubt as to their ability to make that possession tell.

I still take Ireland by a whisker.


Legends clash with England for a good cause

The annual clash of the Ireland and England Rugby Legends takes place this evening at Donnybrook Stadium (kick-off 7.30pm).

Once again the teams will be competing for the Stuart Mangan Memorial Cup. Money raised through the Legends series is edging ever closer the half million euro mark.

This year's proceeds will go to the IRFU Charitable Trust and the RFU All Schools Charity. Tickets can still be purchased through Ticketmaster outlets, the Spar shop in Donnybrook, Searsons on Baggot Street, with any remaining at the turnstiles tonight.

The England Legends will be managed by 114-times capped former prop Jason Leonard, with fellow World Cup winners Martin Corry and Iain Balshaw lining out.

The Ireland squad includes Shane Byrne, Nicky Popplewell, Mick Galwey, Trevor Brennan, Paddy Wallace, Kieron Dawson, Marcus Horan, Paddy Johns, Leo Cullen, David Corkery, Jan Cunningham, Gary Halpin, John Kelly, Simon Mason, Frankie Sheahan, Jeremy Staunton, Liam Toland, James Topping and Stan McDowell.

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