Monday 18 February 2019

Tony Ward: 'Shades of Charlton's Ireland in Schmidt's tactics but winning all that matters'

Ryan: Outstanding once again. Photo: Getty
Ryan: Outstanding once again. Photo: Getty
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In the days leading up to kick-off, the main talking point in Edinburgh was the extraordinary prices which people were paying for tickets on the black market. Fast forward to five minutes left on the clock, and the Scots who paid those crazily inflated prices were leaving in their droves. It was the thought uppermost in my mind as I watched a really poor encounter low in entertainment value and devoid of quality.

If new-age rugby is all about winning, then happy days. But, surely, there has to be more to it than that. It really pained me to refer to our tactics, specifically the over reliance on the pathetic box-kick against the English, as "caveman-like" but that's how it felt, feels and looks.

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In the Jack Charlton years when putting 'em under pressure was all the rage and the nation was in a state of euphoria, I hated our long-ball approach. Of course it was hugely effective and we basked in that new-found feeling of success. Rugby might not be the game of the people, although big strides are being made in that regard, but, for me, there is a definite parallel with the Big Jack days and the price to be paid for success.

And here I would make two quick points. I attended five of the eight games in the first round of the Leinster Schools Cup and I'm not exaggerating when I say that almost every scrum-half at underage level is already a mirror image of the number nines - not just Conor Murray - which they and their coaches watch in the professional game with the 'exit strategy' based almost without exception on the Hail Mary up and under down the line. What a sad but inevitable indictment on the coaching of underage players. Put 'Em Under Pressure indeed.

Secondly, when I was at a comparable age, albeit at a time when scrum-halves passed and seldom kicked, our coaching mentor Fr Walter Kennedy had one golden rule: What you had you held. Possession was nine tenths of the law and the only time putting boot to ball was acceptable was if possession was won back.

In other words, if I kicked and gave it away, I was up for trial at the Monday or Thursday post-match review in his chemistry lab.

Of course it is a much different animal now and kicking is very much part of strategy at the highest level - it would be a bit rich for me to argue otherwise - but surely there has to be another way to the often aimless kicking we witness - and not only from Ireland - on an ongoing basis.

Despite the trenchant defence from within, we are NOT easy on the neutral eye. But credit where it is due for a gutsy performance in which we lost the first half everywhere except on the scoreboard but turned it around for a much more workmanlike second. In the end we got what we deserved.

By contrast with the Aviva seven days previously, there were some big individual performances. At full-back, the case for Rob Kearney rests. He wasn't flawless, specifically in terms of linking, but as the glue that bonds the back three, he is close to irreplaceable with Japan fast approaching.

Along with Jacob Stockdale, who just gets better and better, these two vied with Peter O'Mahony and the again outstanding James Ryan for man of the match in my book. Seán O'Brien too had a big hour in terms of the sheer physicality (particularly in that third quarter) he brings to the cause.

Opportunity knocks now to give Ryan a break from duty for the Italian job in a fortnight's time even if it is to be on the bench with the Quinn Roux/ Dillane combination well established at Connacht. Ryan's contribution out of touch in the enforced absence of Devin Toner represented class, athleticism and moral courage combined. He was outstanding.

CJ Stander, when fit, will return but the work ethic of Jack Conan was outstanding and, come World Cup time, he will be a real challenger to start.

The midfield remains a conundrum in the absence of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose with neither Bundee Aki nor Chris Farrell pressing the case for inclusion ahead of what continues, for me, to be our first-choice pairing.

And at outside-half the gap is closing. Johnny Sexton was on the receiving end of some rough treatment with his pass for Stockdale's try pure class and courageous given its late timing.

He is still our number one but Joey Carbery is growing in stature with every game for province and country.

He will learn from the flat intercept pass taken out by Finn Russell but, beyond that, and much like Ryan, he oozed confidence and that willingness to give it a go whenever and wherever.

So yes, even though style wasn't one of them, there were positives from a scrappy, error ridden, poor quality encounter. In terms of collective confidence, momentum and Championship challenge, we are back on track. A try-scoring bonus point would have been nice but had Joe Schmidt been offered this outcome ahead of kick-off he would have taken it gladly. Not pretty but certainly effective.

Irish Independent

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