Tuesday 20 February 2018

Tony Ward: Gutsy show of defiance to energise Ireland but two changes needed for France

It’s only when Jamie Heaslip is gone that his ability will be appreciated. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
It’s only when Jamie Heaslip is gone that his ability will be appreciated. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward's Ireland team to face France
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The demand was that they answer Ireland's call and they did it in spades. That Sunday's gutsy display didn't lead to a home win says much about the resilience of the visiting opposition. In an opening-day match which we all feared would be a cynical, kick-ridden war of attrition, we got a game full of physicality but underscored by practical application and encouraging intent too.

Perhaps in the final analysis a draw represents the fairest result. Yes, it takes away the Triple Crown and Grand Slam for two of the four teams competing on all three fronts but equally it keeps both Celtic nations in the hunt for the big one and in Ireland's case a record third Six Nations title in a row.

Had Joe Schmidt been offered the end result in the lead-in to Sunday's showdown with Wales given the circumstances, he would have taken it with both hands.

Yes, it was disappointing to lose a 13-point lead but equally it took bottle to come back, level it up and see it out for a fair share of the spoils.

The positives were many and though mainly in individual terms, they provide tremendous scope for Ireland to improve as a unit.

Before the game we looked to our seasoned campaigners for leaders to stand up and make their presence felt. Specifically, we hoped that Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton could share the load with Rory Best. Well, that they surely did. All five were outstanding.

Toner was immense out of touch and around the field. Heaslip was simply Heaslip and someday when he is no longer available to Ireland his brainless critics will see just how big a loss he will be.


Sexton was commanding but most of all varied in what he did, seldom if ever pulling the wrong club out of the bag, while his half-back partner was an absolute revelation. Gone was the slavish box-kicking and instead we saw a return to the all-round game that makes Murray a special talent at this level.

This was like the Murray of old - re-energised and back to the type of dominant form we have seldom witnessed for Munster of late. With these key players plus Best firing in the first four units of the team, it was game on from an early stage on Sunday afternoon.

I single out these players because of their essence as leaders on a day when the individual components went pretty close to matching the sum of the parts. And what of CJ Stander? Despite Welsh derision at Jamie Roberts (who was outstanding) being overlooked for man of the match, I felt the official nod in Stander's direction to be spot on.

He was brilliant in almost everything he did with the more dynamic ball-carrying moments underscored by that trademark work ethic of his. He is the instant success we knew he would be.

Had Sean O'Brien been available, it is most likely Stander's first cap would have come on the hour, instead, and with the 'Tank' likely to be back for Paris, Stander's name is now assured in the back-row.

That said, I thought Tommy O'Donnell was absolutely brilliant until his enforced departure. No one fed into the bullocking Stander presence more. No Peter O'Mahony, no Chris Henry, but throw in Rhys Ruddock and if O'Donnell is available what a conundrum to face the French.

It has to be Stander, O'Brien and Heaslip but O'Donnell is now very much in the frame also. The counter-argument could be for O'Donnell's fluidity on the fast track that is Stade de France but O'Brien is no slouch and simply cannot be left out if fit. What a prospect Stander and O'Brien either side of Heaslip, and with Louis Picamoles ruled out for France.

Much will depend of course on how quickly battered and bruised bodies recover in the six-day turnaround. Am I alone in finding the World Rugby (IRB) and Six Nations concern for player welfare cynical in the extreme when such hugely attritional matches are scheduled just six days apart and in Ireland's case that embraces travelling on Thursday next too?

I agree with Joe Schmidt's take when expressing concern over the narrowness of the Irish defence early on.

The thrust of his point being that the opportunity to drift, scramble and reorganise as we did against the Welsh might not be as easy to replicate against a French side clearly looking to develop that counter-attacking potency which once came so naturally to them down the outside channels.

On the assumption O'Donnell is fit and Keith Earls (who defended so well) is not and that O'Brien is ready to return, I suspect the main areas of analysis in the coming days will centre on tighthead, possibly second row (although Mike McCarthy has earned the right to a recall), openside flank, left wing and full-back.

If Mike Ross is available then he is likely to return in place of Nathan White, while even a fully fit Cian Healy is most definitely now second in the loosehead pecking order to Jack McGrath who was again immense.

Behind the scrum, I'd still love to see a Stuart McCloskey, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne combination at 12, 13 and 15 before this Championship is out. Payne and Henshaw were again solid and assured in midfield and will continue in that vein against the French with Rob Kearney set to return at full-back and Simon Zebo in his more natural left-sided position on the wing.

Andrew Trimble returned as if he had never been away. His natural work ethic, much like Stander's, is infectious. Zebo may not be to the manor born in the last line but when it comes to moral courage he should never be questioned.

Put it all together and, six-day turnaround or not, Ireland will travel to Paris with confidence.

Tony Ward's team to face France: (15-9) Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Jared payne, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; (1-8) Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

No defence for Parisse's arrogant showboating

He is without doubt the greatest Italian rugby player ever to play the game and with the exception of Kieran Read the outstanding No 8 in the global game in recent times.

That said, what Sergio Parisse did on Saturday, when effectively surrendering the win to the French with his attempted drop-goal in added time, was arrogant and self-indulgent in the extreme.

It was showboating of the highest order and reflected a mindset that I didn't think the most iconic figure in Italian rugby possessed. If anyone attempts to defend his action then they haven't played the game and/or know precious little about it. Enough said.

Meanwhile, on Valentine's weekend, Buccaneers Rugby Club will stage 'Strictly Scrum Dancing'. . .the Buccs way! The event will be held at Athlone's Sheraton Hotel with two separate performances, one on Friday and the second on Saturday.

The show starts nightly at 7.30 and tickets priced ¤25 each can be bought at the Sheraton or from Geraldine in the club - 086 1732711 or rugby@dubarrypark.com

Irish Independent

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