Wednesday 13 December 2017

Tony Ward: Deepening talent pool shows we aren't just treading water

Simon Zebo, pictured skipping past Italy’s Leonardo Sarto, sparked the team try of the tournament. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Simon Zebo, pictured skipping past Italy’s Leonardo Sarto, sparked the team try of the tournament. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
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Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Theory has it that teams improve as the tournament goes on (try Italy on that one). Certainly from an Irish perspective such has been the case, although we did start well in the opening half against the Welsh.

The dip unfortunately came against the French and English on the road.

The Twickenham one we can take, as the most complete team in the tournament proved the better combination on the day and, as at the same venue in 2014, deserved their victory, however close.

Maybe Jamie Heaslip summed it up best when describing England as "probably the most clinical side in the competition, it (the Grand Slam) just highlights that, but I think the standard is getting better and better every year".

Eddie Jones' new charges are indeed worthy champions but I certainly don't agree that the standard "is getting better and better every year".

The Six Nations is still a very special tournament despite the best efforts of the organisers - at the behest of TV companies who call the tune - to butcher it through Friday night and Sunday afternoon kick-offs.

Also, the lack of a bonus points system - in place in every other major tournament in the world - betrays an arrogance the governing body can ill afford. Bear in mind Super Rugby is trialling an advance on that bonus system, while rugby in the Six Nations is stuck in a time warp for which the defence is pitiful.


How dare we forget Six Nations Super Saturday 2015? Give us a break, that was a freak finish.

But back to matters immediate and 'Super Saturday 2016'.

Italy conceded 125 points and 18 tries in a week. The Six Nations, EPCR and Pro12 have a tournament-threatening problem that is not going to go away any time soon.

Promotion and relegation to the Six Nations - and the club competitions - is so far off the administrative radar it beggars belief.

I supported the Italian presence from the start and I want them to succeed, but aside from filling Stadio Olimpico (which is an achievement for a football-daft country), Italy is continually dragging standards down.

Nor are they alone in that respect. The French, for all the talk of a back-to-the-future revolution under Guy Noves are as dull and one-dimensional now as they ever were under Philippe Saint Andre or almost every other coach of the professional era who went before.

For those of us of a different generation, to witness French rugby - once so aristocratic - disappearing down the plughole has been the biggest tragedy of the professional age outside of the demise of club rugby globally.

The French as a rugby playing nation are paying the price for Toulon winning Champions Cup upon Champions Cup.

At least the English money men recognise the value of international rugby; the Premiership owners clearly fight their corner but unlike their French counterparts, they do not see their competition as the be all and end all.

That might well change but when the national team is doing the business, then the ripple effect is clear in terms of interest and the increasing number of bums on seats at Premiership venues throughout the land.

As for us? On balance it's been a tournament of progression given where we stood post-World Cup in terms of injuries.

There will always be players out but imagine having to select from Devin Toner, Donnacha Ryan, Iain Henderson, Ultan Dillane, Mike McCarthy, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Tommy O'Donnell, Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock, Jack O'Donoghue, CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip, Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Jack Conan to fill the back two rows of the scrum? Not to mention young bucks like Ross Molony, James Ryan, Dan Leavy and Sean O'Brien Mk 2.

The Italian farce was unrealistic but the tactical development against the much more formidable Scots was very real indeed and I hope an indication of what is to come under Joe Schmidt - who is still the most complete national coach we have ever had, despite the standards set by Declan Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan.


On the plus side, having introduced four new caps, is a deepening squad growing in confidence.

Off the top of my head, with Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney back competing, I could name ten potential wings.

Yet the back three is our area of most obvious concern. Whether defending narrow or attacking without the blinding pace of the top teams, we are a still developing force in need of that essential cutting edge.

We scored the team try of the tournament due in the main to a Simon Zebo offload, but could you imagine any of our players scoring an individual try like the one Stuart Hogg got on Saturday?

Don't tell me what Matt Healy can't do defensively (a widespread national disease called begrudgery). The thought of him, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey and Stuart Olding competing for places excites me.

Robbie Henshaw too has come on leaps and bounds. He was particularly good on Saturday.

Having Andy Farrell on board for South Africa will freshen things up defensively, with the wider channels and re-alignment paramount.

All that said my main wish going forward is that the IRFU leave no stone unturned in securing Schmidt's future.

We may differ on occasion, but by God do I appreciate his worth.

Irish Independent

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