Friday 23 February 2018

Tony Ward: Chance to blood young talent must be taken in Six Nations of 'snooze rugby'

Italian job the perfect opportunity for Schmidt to employ a more attacking mindset with Six Nations finishing position no longer important

Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane should all feature against Italy
Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane should all feature against Italy
Stuart McCloskey performed well in the defeat against England. Photo: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As one who has long held the view that Irish rugby must plan for the here and now, certainly relative to bigger stronger rugby playing nations, I am not set for any dramatic U-turn.

By dint of scarce resources, certainly relative to England and France, we must plan for the next game. Even the Welsh occupy a different plane given that rugby is the national obsession despite Gareth Bale and qualification for the upcoming European Championships.

Here, despite massive gains in popularity, it still competes with soccer for number three behind Gaelic football and hurling. Of course I would love us to be in a position where we could throw caution to the wind and make a raft of changes from one match to the next on the basis of giving youth its fling.

As a coach of underage players I have long practised the principle of good enough is old enough, irrespective of size. The romantic in me would have loved if Joe Schmidt had thrown the World Cup planner out the window and announced the new way as the Puma way.

Of course it doesn't work like that for a myriad of reasons that scarcely need extra elaboration now. What changes we make in personnel and playing policy must be shaped pragmatically or to borrow the most obvious phrase, we must cut our cloth to suit our measure.

To that end, I get it when Schmidt shows reluctance to introduce change, particularly when factoring in the quality of opposition. We seldom get the opportunity to think beyond the tried and trusted in terms of potential success.


Break it down specifically and you are probably talking about one RWC pool game every four years and maybe the occasional November international in between.

The Six Nations is the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown but short of winning it outright, does it really matter where we finish from second to sixth? Yes there are financial ramifications relative to your finishing position but occasionally I think even that is a price worth paying. This is one such year.

We, like the rest of Europe were shown to be way off the pace and style of play when confronted by Championship opposition at the most recent World Cup.

The Six Nations have talked the talk on the back of that reality check but it hasn't made one iota of difference to quality of play in this tournament to date. If anything, the standard is lower than ever and the entertainment quality zilch.

Maybe others see it differently but I haven't enjoyed one match of the nine that have been played. It is snooze rugby of the highest order. Slug-fests of men mountains running into men mountains and aerial ping pong at best indiscriminate and at worst fear-driven.

The history, tradition and tribal nature of the Six Nations makes it special but for how long? This is a different product close to the end wall in a professional cul-de-sac where TV paymasters call the tune. Friday evening I can just about take but Sunday Six Nations is a joke with the laugh on every one of us, most particularly those who care enough to attend.

But back to match number four of 2016 and the Italians are next up.

Not for a minute would I suggest that we disrespect any opposition by way of selection but on the oft-used basis of 'horses for courses' surely this is a heaven-sent opportunity to deepen the pool and broaden the way we go about our business. Had Sean O'Brien, Mike McCarthy and Jared Payne been fit for Twickenham Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane would not yet be capped. But they weren't, so three injuries became opportunities for three others out of necessity, but it shouldn't be like that and Schmidt knows it.

Of course I would love to see the likes of Kieran Marmion, Matt Healy, Garry Ringrose, Denis Buckley, Stuart Olding, Jack O'Donoghue, Tiernan O'Halloran, possibly even Ross Molony and maybe Luke McGrath included in the 23 to face the Azzuri but I know and accept that change must be measured and gradual.

The three new caps who acquitted themselves so well at Twickenham might not have joined a winning environment but it is still a highly competitive side capable of winning their last two games.

On the basis that the Tullow Tank is not fit for the Italian job I expect to see Van Der Flier - a bold selection ahead of Tommy O'Donnell - again included for Saturday. Dillane will most likely start on the bench and make a second appearance on the hour leaving the big calls for Schmidt at centre and the make-up of the back three.

Here, I believe the main man has the scope to implement sensible experimentation with McCloskey and Henshaw at 12 and 13. Rob Kearney did well against the English but when opportunity knocks to experiment with Payne in his best attacking position then it too must be grabbed.

Beyond that I would like to see a greater emphasis on attack down the flanks and while I expect to see Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls again named on the right and left wings respectively there is a strong case for Earls on the right with Simon Zebo on the left. Craig Gilroy too (on either flank) should be in the frame. The Healy argument we'll leave for now.

One final point relates to strategy and here I believe it to be all about mindset.

If there is a will there is a way to play a more effective brand of attractive rugby through the hands.

Tune in to Super 18 any Friday or Saturday or else go along and watch Connacht under Pat Lam in action. Even the South African Super teams have cottoned on. Weather-allowing, the most appropriate strategy to beat the Azzuri should involve neither collision rugby nor aerial bombardment. The alternative is obvious.

Opportunity knocks, time to grab it.

Tony Ward's team to face Italy:

Irish Independent

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