Thursday 18 July 2019

Tony Ward: 'Ireland must build attacking strategy that goes beyond the box-kick this spring'

 

Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: PA
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Given what it is, the staging of the World Cup every four years has to be the greatest rugby show of all but no tournament or no time of year captures the imagination like the Six Nations and those magical six weeks between early February and mid-March.

The Six Nations is a special time of year and I suspect I am not alone in suggesting it is even better than Christmas. Once Santa has packed up and headed back north, the Six Nations is on its way and it seldom disappoints.

Yes, there will be favourites in any given year but equally on any given day any given team (including the Italians) can beat any of the rest.

However exaggerated it might sound, the accurate swing of Johnny Sexton's right boot in Paris this time last year set up a Grand Slam that seemed dead and buried in the moment.

It was without doubt, for Irish folk everywhere around the globe, a very special 'where were you?' moment.

Before a ball is kicked in the 2019 Six Nations I think it is fair to say that all pre-tournament evidence points to Ireland, England and Wales being marginally ahead of Scotland and France, with the Italians, as ever, battling for that solitary win to maintain interest and credibility.

For reasons over and above the ordinary I'd love if Conor O'Shea could help solve the problem through the establishment of a Schmidt-type winning mentality before his time is up.

Benetton are having a decent season while Zebre are at least competitive.

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It is the type of domestic base essential as the leap to Europe and then Test level remains massive.

Jonathan Joseph: Centre of attention. Photo: PA
Jonathan Joseph: Centre of attention. Photo: PA

They are at their most dangerous early, so Scotland at Murrayfield and Wales in Rome in that opening fortnight appear the most vulnerable to a shock result.

They have class in Michele Campagnaro and direction through Tommaso Allan behind two of the better back-row operators in Sebastian Negri and Sergio Parisse, although the latter's days as a one-man band are gone.

The Welsh under Warren Gatland are in a rich vein of winning form. They are injury-hit with Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams (although still a possibility) and most particularly No 8 Taulupe Faletau ruled out.

That said, they are looking good despite the dismal showing of the regions in both PRO14 and Champions Cup.

That can often prove the way whereby the break from a losing environment on a regular basis to a different set-up entirely, for the Six Nations window, can prove heaven-sent.

In simple terms Gatland is where Joe Schmidt was 12 months ago.

Win on Friday in France and everything is possible. The target for each and every one of the six head coaches is winning momentum in that opening game, especially on the road. Momentum in this tournament is everything.

If the Italian domestic sides are showing a bit of fight then even better still in terms of form and delivery has been that of the two pro Scottish districts.

Richard Cockerill (at Edinburgh) and Dave Rennie (Glasgow) have proved shrewd acquisitions.

They are both feeding into a Scottish squad which has a coach who in terms of potential ranks alongside Schmidt for substance and overall work ethic.

Gregor Townsend is a little more extravagant, he coaches as he played - with common sense at its core.

Their opening two games are at home with Ireland second up and 2017 still clear in the memory. Enough said.

The French were once the team I loved but now they are the one side I love to hate.

If only the panache of Toulouse and Racing in particular could be transferred by Jacques Brunel and this tournament would be on fire from the off with Thomas Ramos and Antoine Dupont for starters, as well as Dema Bamba and Romain Ntamack. As ever we write them off at our peril, however.

The big Englishmen are on the way in the guise of the Vunipola brothers (Billy and Mako), Joe Launchbury, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga but in addition to the piano shifters they have crafty players in Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Jonathan Joseph to name but a few.

They will miss Anthony Watson and Sam Underhill's recent impact too.

Eddie Jones can certainly talk the talk but he is coming heavily armed to face what is anything but a group of shrinking violets.

The thought of James Ryan on Maro Itoje or Sexton fronting up to Owen Farrell or CJ Stander head-to-head with Billy Vunipola has the mind boggling and temperature rising.

So four quick wishes: 1) That the Italians compete from first game to last, 2) That the French turn back the clock and run as in days of yore, 3) That Ireland further develop an attacking strategy away from the box-kick, and 4) The reigning champions finish on top irrespective of a Grand Slam or not.

Irish Independent

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