Tuesday 15 October 2019

Tony Ward: On Saturday, I fell back in love with this great game

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

How quickly things change. A few weeks ago, specifically in the aftermath of the French slugfest, I expressed concern for the state of rugby at the highest level and where it might be heading in the future. I still harbour many of those concerns, but on Saturday, like many people, I fell back in love with this great game.

What we witnessed on Super Saturday was spellbinding, pulsating, gripping, spine-tingling, riveting, nerve-wracking. The superlatives are endless. As a promo for the game and, more particularly, an advert for the upcoming World Cup, it could hardly be bettered. For once, there were no shackles and just what it was that possessed William Webb Ellis to pick up the football all those years ago and run with it was plain to be seen.

Ireland captain Niamh Briggs celebrates with the Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy
Ireland captain Niamh Briggs celebrates with the Women's Six Nations Rugby Championship trophy

The beauty of sport is in the eye of the beholder and no sport can claim to be the best but when Union is played as it was in Rome, Edinburgh and London on Saturday, it is up there near the top.

But what was it that made last weekend so different? What turned the four-series bore to date (with the very odd exception) into a classic, free-spirited finale that enthralled the world?

Without wishing to be overly simplistic, it comes down to one word: mindset. A system where any team can have an advantage over its competitors before a ball is kicked is flawed. Staggered kick-offs on the last day are central to the TV deal, but if there was any chance of a fairer approach and concurrent timing kicking in for 2016, well Saturday put paid to that idea.

Tweaked

There will be many suggestions as to how the Six Nations can be tweaked, specifically in terms of addressing scoring values - perhaps by increasing the try to six points and dropping the penalty kick to two. You can get the rationale but equally predict the cynicism that would follow. Can you imagine the penalty count in that scenario? Tries by dint of the lineout maul would shoot through the roof as that Webb Ellis ideal would be consigned to history forever.

The second and more obvious way is the bonus-point system that's used in almost every other rugby competition. I believe there is scope for this change as the objection of a side finishing ahead of others who have won more games has not proved a problem anywhere else and it would still leave the door ajar for the kind of last-day drama witnessed this final Six Nations weekend.

For now, though, it's hats off to World Rugby but more specifically to Johnny Feehan, Billy Beaumont and the Six Nations Council for paving the way and in the process showing what is still possible when the coaching mindset is right.

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Everything All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said mid-tournament about the game getting boring was bang on the money. His concerns were heartfelt as are mine. To put it in context, we had 35 tries in the opening four rounds yet 27 were registered on the final day in a 227-point scoring extravaganza.

It would not have happened if the final-day circumstances, including the staggered timing of the games (can't believe I'm saying this), weren't what they were. It's great on occasion to be proved wrong and this was one of them.

It was still Test rugby, but played out in all three games with a different mindset entirely.

And the end result? An incredible day, no an incredible couple of days, for Irish rugby as this little dot on the western tip of Europe moved to the top of the northern hemisphere tree in both the men's and women's games. Who would have believed it? Tommy Tierney has picked up where Philip Doyle left off as Niamh Briggs, Alison Miller and the rest go from strength to strength.

And, of course, so too does Joe Schmidt. It wasn't just winning the title on Saturday - and yes it was important to retain it for the first time as we did - but much more crucial was the manner in which we bounced back from Cardiff the previous week.

Such was the variety in our comprehensive drubbing of the Scots that with it came a taste of what is possible when all the other bread and butter bits and pieces are in place and, yes, when the attacking mindset on both sides is right.

And, you know, while clearly a Grand Slam on top of that unbeaten autumn series on the way to retaining the title would have taken this team to unprecedented heights, in a perverse sort of way the Welsh defeat could make for a blessing in disguise for Ireland.

Had we won at the Millennium Stadium and followed it up again on Saturday, it would have taken us to August and the build-up to the World Cup with the added pressure of an unbeaten run to protect.

To lose in Cardiff was a reality check as for the first time this rugby season we failed to hit the ground running in a Test match. While the August friendlies will present a different type of challenge and most probably a different type of mindset (though clearly we hope not), the reality of knockout rugby (even within the Pool) will add to the likely conservatism.

Schmidt is no one's fool and he will have learned from Saturday, however surreal what transpired in Edinburgh and elsewhere might have been.

And that's the most reassuring aspect for me - the Murrayfield win had real substance for the full 80 minutes, while in the second half in Rome and for most of the game at Twickenham there was a Barbarian feel about the action.

Why can't it be like this all the time? To that I think we all know the answer. Rugby is still feeling its way in professional terms when compared to say football or rugby league but coaching jobs are precarious with winning always the bottom line.

The defensive gurus will have been apoplectic at what they witnessed and we doubt too much sleep was had since.

Our hearts bleed for them, but what a game, what a day and what a title defence.

16th Man leads way in storming of Murrayfield

There were so many big performers in Edinburgh. Stretching from Sean O'Brien's tour de force, to skipper Paul O'Connell's clear and measured leadership (not to mention opening try) to Jared Payne's first break over the whitewash at the highest level to Jamie Heaslip's ultimate try-saving, title-winning tackle on Stuart Hogg.

We're talking heroes one and all and ne'r a mention of a certain Joe Schmidt. But to that can we add from personal experience the contribution of the 16th Man. Typical of O'Connell, the Irish captain was quick off the mark in the immediate aftermath when referring to the vital part played by the green army on tour.

It was like days of old in downtown Edinburgh on Friday with the city's 'Little Ireland' - The Three Sisters in Cowgate - heaving with colour and atmosphere. From the Royal Mile down Princes Street and around into Rose Street the Irish presence was massive.

And good though it was on the eve of the game, the ground was submerged in a sea of green on Saturday, most tellingly two hours after.

A mighty well done to all concerned.

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