Tuesday 24 October 2017

Tony Ward: Anthony Foley needs to identify his best team quickly

Munster's Dave Foley wins possession in a lineout ahead of Donnacha Ryan during squad training ahead of their Guinness PRO12 match against Ospreys today. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Munster's Dave Foley wins possession in a lineout ahead of Donnacha Ryan during squad training ahead of their Guinness PRO12 match against Ospreys today. Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Four games in and with due respect to Edinburgh (despite winning in Limerick in the opening series) this evening's visit of the Ospreys to Thomond Park marks the real beginning for Munster under the new coaching regime.

I noted a summer interview where Ospreys coach Steve Tandy suggested that the Pro12 would be much more open this season, and minus some of the walkovers we witnessed last year.

It is still early days, I know, but all available evidence suggests that the Italian input is weaker than ever.

This presents a huge dilemma for the tournament organisers and by extension the soon to be launched European Champions Cup.

I too supported the principle of giving the Italian Federation time to adjust to a home-based professional game with enough depth to compete with the Celtic Nations. Sadly that aspiration has failed to materialise, with the Italian club challenge heading in the opposite direction.

Already, with just three games gone, Treviso and Zebre occupy the bottom two positions - and I think you will get fairly short odds on them remaining there for the rest of the 22-round tournament.

Forgive the negativity but I cannot see a single shred of evidence that Italian rugby has improved since joining the Celtic countries to make it a four-nation tournament. It is a festering problem to which there is no operational solution at this point in time.

Emerging

Yes of course we need to foster rugby development in emerging nations, but for how long and what price in this increasingly professional age? It is on the back of successive victories over the Italian two that Munster's reasonably decent start is to be judged to date.

The table-topping Ospreys (prior to last night's games) may not be the all-round force they were, but they offer a more realistic barometer of where Munster currently stands.

It would be stretching it to suggest that this Welsh visit is a game to make or break the season, but certainly for Anthony Foley it is an opportunity to lay down an early marker.

And with that comes the confidence factor too. Foley was quoted this week as saying: "It's important that people come out and create a good home atmosphere. We need support if we are to go anywhere in the competition. We need to make Thomond a fortress. We'll do our best on the pitch but we need people to come out and support us as well."

Of course we get where he is coming from as it was most disconcerting to witness large tracts of empty seats (even if many of those seats have been sold as season tickets) for the Edinburgh game.

The reality of professional life, as Axel knows only too well, is that performance wins bums on seats and not the other way around.

So as Munster enter into the 'Welsh phase' of their season, the Ospreys performance and result is vital.

Munster face all four Welsh regions in the coming weeks - with that notable exception of the derby clash with Leinster in the Aviva Stadium next weekend.

The Scarlets at home followed by Cardiff and the Newport Gwent Dragons in the Principality represents a genuinely challenging opportunity for Munster to make their mark and with it a new beginning.

Both on and off the pitch, Munster rugby is in transition and where Foley is right in addressing the public is in the subtext calling for patience. Real support (at least the 16th man variety) comes in many guises and patience when most required is one.

Press me to name a first-choice Munster line-up (assuming everyone was fit) at this point in time and I would struggle badly.

It goes without saying that the new management is working towards having at least two players competing for every position but ahead of that is the crying need for a core unit, one which effectively selects itself, and right now it's not there. So to the brave and the faithful, I say be patient.

Injuries to key players - Donnacha Ryan, Mick Sherry, Keith Earls, Peter O'Mahony, Damien Varley, to name but some - sure haven't helped. That comes with the territory but also carries the built-in opportunity for others to make their mark.

The most immediate needs are to identify a first-choice hooker, a clear balance in the back-row, a definitive decision as to the playmaker at out-half, a bludgeon and rapier pairing in midfield and a back three - apart from Simon Zebo - that offers genuine penetration and counter-attacking possibilities.

It is a massive order but I do believe the potential is there. Denis Hurley may not be the quickest or most dynamic of attacking players but his shift to No 12 is an experiment well worth trying as Munster look to that return to the gainline-breaking basic at inside-centre and back-row that for so long served them so well.

European rugby will make other demands in wider areas but right now in the Pro12, small steps represent the most sensible way to go. To borrow from times past 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'.

Having walloped Edinburgh (although not the same Scottish team as beat Munster) 62-13, the Ospreys have turned pre-season pessimism on its head.

They come to Limerick with a new side playing a most dynamic brand of high tempo off loading rugby.

Accurate

Toss in the experience and nous of Alun-Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar and it makes for a fairly potent mix.

For both sides and their respective coaches it represents a massive test of character and much more accurate barometer as to what might lie immediately ahead.

From a Munster perspective I want to see players like Hurley, Felix Jones, Ronan O'Mahony, Andrew Conway, Johne Murphy, Dave Foley, James Cronin, Shane Buckley, CJ Stander, Robin Copeland really step up to what is demanded of them throughout this Welsh phase in the coming weeks.

Winning tonight would be a pretty good place to start.

 

Outlandish prices temper world cup optimism

I guess they call it the open market and the law of supply and demand but for those intent on heading to the World Cup this time next year, prepare to dig deep.

The draw has been kind to Joe Schmidt and Ireland and as reigning Six Nations champions going into 2015, optimism is justifiably high.

Given a Pool containing France, Italy, Canada and Romania it's not stretching it to suggest that the meeting with the French at the Millennium Stadium on October 11 should decide who tops the group - and with Argentina then the likely opposition in the quarter-finals, that represents our best chance ever of a place in the final four of world rugby.

But at what price? Leaving transport and accommodation aside, tickets for the Pool games at the Millennium Stadium (Canada), Wembley (Romania) and the Olympic Stadium (Italy) will set you back between £50 and £175 sterling. The likely group finale against the French in Cardiff sees ticket prices run through £50, £125, £175 to £250.

The quarter-final range (again set for Cardiff) goes from £95 through £150, £215, leaving premium £250 tickets the top of the pile. Get to Twickenham for a ground-breaking, history-making semi-final and it too comes with a mini-mortgage. Brace yourself: £125 for the 'cheapest' seat through £215, £315 and £515 for best in the house

As for the final? Forget about it. You really don't want to know. Apparently the economy is turning around, but dare I suggest it has some way to go to reach the bank-breaking level required should Ireland be one of the two lining out in Twickenham on October 31?

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport