Saturday 18 November 2017

Tony Ward: Everything looking rosy for Ireland despite provincial hiccups

Joe Schmidt's men in pole position

Joe Schmidt will be encouraged by his players' recent form
Joe Schmidt will be encouraged by his players' recent form
Last night, Musgrave Park officially changed its name to Irish Independent Park as the reality of life in the 21st century rugby fast lane kicked in on Leeside.
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Despite suggestions to the contrary, last weekend wasn't bad at all for Irish rugby. Yes, Leinster did squeeze through by the skin of their teeth to keep relatively slim Irish title hopes alive.

They blew a commanding half-time lead over Wasps, but it was encouraging to see them get into that position in the first place. Most of their play in that first half was top-drawer Leinster at their best.

29 January 2015; Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald during squad training. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
29 January 2015; Ireland's Luke Fitzgerald during squad training. Carton House, Maynooth, Co. Kildare. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Ulster displayed their pride after being battered and bruised in an otherwise hugely disappointing European campaign. They delivered in spades to derail a Leicester side gunning for the last eight.

The game really mattered to the Tigers, but it mattered even more to Rory Best and Co, even though they had nothing tangible to play for. It was probably Ulster's best performance of the season.

Munster enjoyed a nine-try extravaganza against Sale, but here I would urge caution.

To describe Sale as abysmal would be doing that adjective a disservice. The English side were bedraggled, looking what they are at this level. Mentally, they never turned up in Limerick.

So yes, credit Munster for eventually exposing that huge disparity, but does it make up for the no show the previous week at Saracens? No, and if I'm in the minority here, then heaven help the province going forward.

IRRELEVANT

Meanwhile, Connacht did themselves and Irish rugby proud with yet another win on French soil - even allowing for the fact that the Challenge Cup is now a largely irrelevant shadow tournament, given the absence under the new administration of an ticket for the winners into the main event.

That is one issue in need of address, given the disdain in which it is being treated, particularly by the French.

In Coventry, there were big performances from Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald, Sean Cronin (yet again), Marty Moore (timely) and Jordi Murphy (now fully equipped to wear the Ireland No 7 shirt).

In Belfast, Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Best, Roger Wilson and especially Iain Henderson (at No 6) stood out.

Rob Kearney, Leinster, is tackled by Christian Wade, Wasps
Rob Kearney, Leinster, is tackled by Christian Wade, Wasps

I have left Darren Cave out of that list, because despite scoring three well taken tries and being named man of the match, I am still to be fully convinced of his all-round ability to take over the No 13 shirt at the highest level.

I hope I am wrong but for now the jury remains out, although given his Ulster form of late he is putting it up to Joe Schmidt.

Moving back to Munster, and Simon Zebo again caught the eye. He is pretty much nailed on to start on the left wing against Italy, and I reckon he would be in the frame for full-back (along with Jared Payne and Felix Jones) should anything untoward happen to Kearney.

Like him or loathe him (and I like him) you cannot ignore the Corkman. He has that X-factor in attack, with a confidence - some might call brashness - to match.

At a time when Munster back play is akin to wet paint drying, Zebo operates at a different attacking level with only Andrew Conway and Ronan O'Mahony up until now coming close.

I say up until now because as with Fitzgerald (still very much an option on the wing) there are definite signs of Keith Earls regaining his mojo.

Along with Ivan Dineen he has at least given Anthony Foley something positive to chew on the back of a bitterly disappointing European campaign, particularly in creative and attacking terms.

Up front James Cronin, Duncan Casey, Paul O'Connell, Tommy O'Donnell and Peter O'Mahony ran riot against Sale.

For Connacht in La Rochelle Kieran Marmion (timely), Matt Healy (yet again), Nathan White (also timely) and Jack Carty (another to watch in time) were all very good.

Overall, last weekend's results should have meant that the Ireland squad assembled in good spirits despite the supposed provincial doom and gloom in recent months.

I maintain my long-held view that there is no real connect between province/club and country.

How could there possibly be, with two distinctly different teams competing at entirely different levels in entirely different competitions?

Also, the Ireland players are reporting back to a main man that they trust. Schmidt is no miracle worker but his honesty is a huge asset: the players know that if they put in the work, they will get their shot.

Add in a favourable fixture list, with the French and English at home, and the Six Nations campaign couldn't be better pitched.

November helps too, so leave the excuses, we are in good nick.

Independent Park lights the way in modern game

Last night, Musgrave Park officially changed its name to Irish Independent Park as the reality of life in the 21st century rugby fast lane kicked in on Leeside.

Ulster sold their stadium naming rights to Kingspan, and Leinster will soon follow suit as the renovation of the RDS to a 25,000-seat stadium takes place and the naming rights to the Dublin 4 ground are set for auction.

No doubt similar corporate soundings are discreetly under way in the west for the Sportsground.

The last of the big five provincial grounds to fall will be Thomond Park, and that was always set to be the case.

But inevitably, it will eventually fall to the 'bang of the buck' - and that prediction is coming from someone who fully respects the unique place the ground holds in the hearts and minds of Limerick and Munster folk everywhere.

Different era, different demands, different ethos, different game.

Read more: Disappointing Irish Wolfhounds fail to halt Saxons

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