Monday 19 March 2018

Tony Ward: I hate the removal of Six Nations Saturday - but we can use Friday night atmosphere to our advantage

Millennium Stadium is a complete sell-out for Friday's match between Wales and Ireland
Millennium Stadium is a complete sell-out for Friday's match between Wales and Ireland
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I hate the removal of the traditional Five/Six Nations holy day. Saturday was, and I believe still should be, the sacred playing day.

Of course I get it, television money talks. Long gone are times when the live audience mattered - now it's all about bums on invisible seats. Without the income from broadcast rights, we wouldn't have a pro game.

That said, given a choice as to the lesser of two evils between Friday night and Sunday afternoon, it's a no-brainer.

This week we take the field for a Friday night Six Nations fixture for the first time, and with respect to Lansdowne Road, there could not be a more exciting venue than the Millennium Stadium.

Shane Horgan said over the weekend: "I never liked the stadium as a player, roof on or off, I found the atmosphere claustrophobic and suffocating."


However, I suspect that deep down one of our greatest ever wings relished that challenge. Certainly his performances reflected that - and he had some good days in Cardiff with Leinster and Ireland.

I didn't get the opportunity to play at the Millennium, but the old Cardiff Arms Park was every bit as atmospheric, even without the roof.

And while New Zealand continue to set the standard to which everyone else must aspire, Welsh rugby still occupies a very special place.

I love their passion for the game, their never-ending optimism, and yes that Celtic tribalism too. Come 8.0 on Friday night, the heart of Cardiff (such is the unique location of the stadium) will be heaving.

And the singing in the stadium is like no other - only Thomond on Champions Cup days comes close.

To stand before the high altar of Welsh rugby and listen to the crowd give Hen wlad fy nhiandau (Land of my fathers) their all has an uplifting effect on the opposition. God only knows what it must do for the home team. It gives you a shiver up your spine in the moments before kick-off, particularly given our own anthem issue and all that entails.

I have little doubt that Simon Easterby in particular will be encouraging his charges to tap into what remains a special rugby experience.

The atmosphere is not the only apparent Welsh advantage that can be turned to our favour. The home crowd can become an unwitting 16th man for the team in green.

The early Welsh backlash post-Murrayfield is guaranteed. They will come out with all guns blazing.

It is imperative we ride that storm and in taking the wind out of their sails turn the stadium from a cauldron of noise to a confused silence. That can be detected instantly on field.

Football teams have been doing it for decades on their European travels, and rugby's equivalent have been fast learning the art.

Between 1967 (when an Alan Duggan try gave us a 3-0 success) and 1985 we couldn't buy a win at the old Arms Park. Then came the Mick Doyle revolution and with it one of the greatest team tries ever scored by an Irish team when Keith Crossan was on the end of a flowing move and perfectly timed Hugo MacNeill pass to complete a memorable 21-9 success.

That momentous win turned the tide entirely and for the next 20 years we couldn't lose in the Principality.

Indeed since 2005 we have only lost twice there. It is an extraordinary record in what is surely Ireland's favourite rugby stadium (think 2009 Grand Slam, while Munster and Leinster will vouch for that too) outside of the Aviva.

So what are we hoping for on Friday?

1. We will be looking to inhale the atmosphere and then turn it into the positive it can undoubtedly become. Rightly or wrongly, stand-in Welsh coach Rob Howley is under pressure.

The real pressure of course is not from the media or indeed the Valleys but the race for that precious second-drum World Cup 2019 seeding via a top-eight ranking. Ireland at home and France away is hardly the cushiest route to that objective.

2. Despite the guaranteed storm coming our way it is imperative we hit the ground running a la Rome and not Edinburgh or Dublin.

Even if it is to be a rearguard action, the early body language and defensive line-speed allied to width will tell a tale.

3. Patience. The best teams in any sport never panic. This now is a real test in that regard.

We are going to face the kitchen sink, but against the French - an immeasurably better team than the Italians - we worked our way into a match we never let drift.

Even against the Scots we came back to lead a game we disappointingly let go. In what followed lay the biggest lesson of all.

4. That the tactical variation post-World Cup continues to evolve. We are still short on finishing power, but what we are seeing from this still developing Ireland side is a squad with increasing options.

Rest assured Joe Schmidt will have devised a game-plan that is achievable but based much more on variety than pre-World Cup aerial bombardment.

5. This is as close as it gets to knock-out rugby. This is our Six Nations semi-final. Win and, assuming England beat Scotland at Twickenham, all roads lead to Dublin 4 on March 18.

And one wish in the interim: can all this Lions selection nonsense be parked? When measured against facing the Welsh and English over the next eight days, who cares about a fictitious selection?

Based on collective performance over the next two games, that stuff will look after itself.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport