Friday 23 March 2018

Tony Ward: Leavy reminds me of a young McCaw as he bulks up to boss breakdown without sacrificing pace

17 February 2017; Dan Leavy of Leinster in action against Duncan Weir of Edinburgh during the Guinness PRO12 Round 15 match between Leinster and Edinburgh at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
17 February 2017; Dan Leavy of Leinster in action against Duncan Weir of Edinburgh during the Guinness PRO12 Round 15 match between Leinster and Edinburgh at the RDS Arena in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

The failure to leave the traps in the first half at Murrayfield showed that Ireland are an inconsistent, still developing team. The upshot of that defeat is that every game is effectively a knockout in terms of our title hopes.

It's time for the real Ireland to stand up, game upon game, starting against France on Saturday.

We all agree that more adventurous green shoots are appearing under Guy Noves but I certainly don't expect a trip back in time from Les Bleus at the Aviva.

Make no mistake, the French will do whatever it takes to win, because for both sides this is the make or break game of this Six Nations campaign. I would love to think we'll be looking at a new Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella, Denis Charvet, Jean Baptiste Lafond generation, but France's problems cut so much deeper than that.

Yes they have Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa (neither the most Gallic of names, but I'll not cast any stones on that one) measuring in at 6ft 3ins and 97kg, and 6ft 1in and 92kg respectively.

These two representatives of Fijian and Kiwi rugby possess serious attacking potential.

The purist in me would love to see both in full flow down the flanks on Saturday, but I expect both to be employed, as is the wont of the modern-day winger, chasing ball in the air, clearing rucks and setting up field position down the flanks. Oh to be proven wrong.

I want to believe that under Noves - an old dog for the hard road created by French club owners a long time ago - there is a light at the end of this dark and dreary tunnel.

Given a choice between either side winning ugly in the now annual war of attrition between the nations, and a match-up of flair and panache from days gone by, then hands up to being a rugby fossil!

Schmidt has picked a squad along predictable lines.

With Josh van der Flier injured against Edinburgh and Joey Carbery still making his way back with Leinster after injury, the only surprise in his 34-man panel is Quinn Roux for Billy Holland and Ultan Dillane.

That selection suggests an emphasis on physicality this week, particularly in the scrum.

Also, the French, for all the talk of a shifting emphasis, still tend to rely on replacing four tight forwards en masse on the hour mark.

I suspect that through Cian Healy (assuming Jack McGrath starts), Niall Scannell, John Ryan and either Iain Henderson or Roux, Schmidt will look for the Irish cavalry to match brute force with brute force.

Indeed a case could be made for a six forwards/two backs split on the bench, given the possible presence of Peter O'Mahony or Dan Leavy in reserve.

It would be high risk but in Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw there is room for positional manoeuvre, leaving Kieran Marmion and Paddy Jackson the only cover required behind the scrum.

Nevertheless, I imagine it will be a standard five-three call.

Schmidt is morally and pragmatically right in not calling on Carbery just yet, but along with Jackson this incredibly exciting talent represents the future of Irish rugby.

Tiernan O'Halloran too had another mighty outing for Connacht over the weekend. Certainly on form, he would be my pick at full-back if Rob Kearney doesn't make it, given that he plays pretty much all his rugby at No 15.

I suspect Zebo will be asked to switch from wing to full-back, but O'Halloran is now ready.

The big statement over the weekend once again came from Leinster, specifically from Dan Leavy. For those who have seen the former St Michael's cup-winning flanker and captain come through the underage system, there will be no surprise at his development now.

Where there has been a change is in his physical maturation. In his youth, Leavy was an out-and-out roving flanker in the Keith Gleeson/ Nigel Carr mould.

His ability to cover ground and make it to the breakdown ahead of the posse was, even by schoolboy standards, phenomenal.

Now, he reminds of a young Richie McCaw in terms of potential and playing style. McCaw adapted his game to become probably the most effective operator in the history of the game at the tackle breakdown when combining strength with rugby nous.

Leavy is still making his way but his strength over the ball at the breakdown, in possession near the opposition line or in choking at the tackle is already exceptional - and critically, he still has that pace.

His recent statement has certainly been noted.

Irish Independent

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