Saturday 20 January 2018

Tony Ward: Schmidt must keep faith with Madigan despite Wolfhounds false step

Ian Madigan failed to run the show against the England Saxons, but deserves to start against Italy. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ian Madigan failed to run the show against the England Saxons, but deserves to start against Italy. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Whereas the provinces' form has little bearing on the Six Nations, the Wolfhounds' no show at Irish Independent Park is certainly a concern.

I was expecting fireworks; what we got was a damp squib, with the English Saxons winning much more easily than anyone could have anticipated given the strength of the Irish shadow team sent out by Joe Schmidt.

The head coach presented so many fringe players - whether new kids on the block or seasoned campaigners returning from longer term injury - the opportunity to stake their claim for inclusion in the match-day squad for Rome.

Schmidt, though, did not prepare the team himself.

The biggest disappointment for me was that the Saxons looked hungry, and the Wolfhounds did not.

There was a little huffing and puffing early on but not a lot of meaningful structure and certainly little by way of collective intensity compared to those wearing white.

For the vast majority of Wolfhounds in action, last Friday represented a flight missed. . . for now at least.

There were some positives, of course.

Iain Henderson, as for Ulster the previous week, looked the all-embracing back-five forward he already is and the major Test force he is set to become as he stepped up his return from injury.

Brutish

He is not quite in the brutish Stephen Ferris league just yet with ball in hand, but he's not far short.

I suspect he will be on the bench for Italy, but Devin Toner, Paul O'Connell and Peter O'Mahony too had better watch out - this guy will occupy one of the shirts numbered four to six come August and the lead-in to England 2015.

He may well become a permanent fixture before this Six Nations is out.

Another positive was Sean O'Brien's tailored contribution.

Beyond that, the game created more problems than it solved.

The half-backs weren't so much poor as never in control.

I still see Ian Madigan as a potential inside-centre for Leinster and Ireland, with Johnny Sexton soon to return .

I also still believe, irrespective of Friday's lack of conviction at No 10, that he is still well ahead of Ian Keatley in the race (now sprint) to start at out-half in Rome.

I will be very surprised if Schmidt sees it any differently, although the head coach is very much his own man and is happy to follow his gut instinct.

I rate Keatley but feel that Madigan is just too good an all-round talent to leave out particularly in times of crisis, and, minus Sexton to face the Italians, this is one such time.

Either way, whether Madigan or Keatley starts, it's a no brainer as to what area Jacques Brunel, Sergio Parisse and Co will target.

The 38-man squad named by Schmidt is pretty much on predictable lines.

Jack Conan didn't shine in Cork but he is, like Henderson, very much a tomorrow man who will also be much more centrally positioned come World Cup time. I still believe, given his obvious attributes, that he is close to that step up now.

With Jamie Heaslip away on Ireland duty, he has an opportunity to make an indelible mark at No 8 for Leinster in the coming weeks, and I'm sure he won't be far from Schmidt's thoughts.

In the absence of Sexton and Cian Healy, allied to the doubts over Mike Ross and Gordon D'Arcy (Father Time takes no prisoners) and the long-term injury to Jared Payne, the key decisions are at prop, out-half (although still straightforward in my book) and the centres.

Jack McGrath should start at loosehead with his time out through suspension proving of benefit in terms of appetite.

I would go with Marty Moore at tighthead but I expect it to be the old dog in Ross for the Italian job.

Toner and O'Connell to make up the second-row, with O'Brien starting alongside O'Mahony and Heaslip (on the assumption he is cleared) even if it is only to the hour mark.

Conor Murray will be back to steady the ship at scrum half which will also make life easier for Madigan in the frenetic cauldron that is now the Stadio Olimpico.

Despite the great progress being made by Luke Fitzgerald at outside-centre for Leinster, I expect it to be Payne and Robbie Henshaw, with a fluid arrangement whether wearing 12 or 13. I do not buy into this modern-day boxing of centres to fit a kind of bludgeon/rapier prototype.

Beyond that, despite Schmidt's understandable desire to have the recuperating Dave Kearney on board, brother Rob, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, pick themselves.

Likely team to play Italy: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), S Zebo (Munster); I Madigan (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster); D Toner (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster); P O'Mahony (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster).

Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), J Cronin (Munster), M Moore (Leinster), I Henderson (Ulster), J Murphy (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), I Keatley (Munster), F Jones (Munster).

 

Don't judge Azzurri by Italian clubs' struggles

Bearing in mind our experience there two years ago, I urge caution ahead of the trip to Rome, with Italy at home in their opening match before a fanatical crowd in the magnificent amphitheatre that is the Stadio Olimpico.

As the tournament progresses, injury and demoralisation usually take hold and inevitably a bottom two place follows for the Azzurri.

I am not saying it will be any different this time but I am extra wary this time round.

When you consider recent results in Europe like Northampton 67 Treviso 0 or Racing 53 Treviso 7 and Cardiff 104 Rovigo 12, you scratch your head and say what the hell, Ireland should win easily.

But while the Italian sides are struggling in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, Italy at Test level is a different beast entirely, under their inspirational skipper Sergio Parisse.

Believe it, because I can assure you they do.

Irish Independent

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