Monday 21 October 2019

Tony Ward: Being left out is fine, it's not knowing why which scars

Tony Ward endured a difficult first overseas trip when Ireland toured Australia in 1979. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tony Ward endured a difficult first overseas trip when Ireland toured Australia in 1979. Photograph: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In May 1978, alongside just short of 100 students, I sat my final exams of a four-year degree course at what is now called the University of Limerick.

The environment of an exam hall always brings pressure but, with the additional weight I was putting on my own shoulders, it felt like there was no safety net of potentially repeating if things didn't go well.

Ireland hadn't been to Australia since their one and only trek there in 1967 but I couldn't have been more aware that 12 months after we put the pens down, the squad, of which I was now a fully signed-up member, was due to complete an eight-match, two-Test tour Down Under.

Nothing, least of all exam repeats, could get in the way. As luck, and I guess a fair bit of graft, would have it we got through in one piece and so the stage was set for my first fully-fledged international touring experience.

The excitement was palpable given that the world was one hell of a bigger place then. No mobiles, no internet, no Skype - just the weekly phone call home on the back of the four-punt daily allowance the IRFU managed to distribute from their secured millions.

Bear in mind that as players we never turned left when boarding a long-haul flight back then, with Ireland or the Lions. There may have been some first-class players aboard, but their seats were always economy.

To the powers that were, it was a privilege to be a player and the IRFU left you in little doubt as to their take on it. Oh, to have had the wisdom of hindsight and to have known then what we do now.


Of course life doesn't work like that. As colleague David Kelly put it so succinctly in these pages over last weekend "forests have been felled covering 'The Decision' (Ward/ Campbell) over the years".

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I have little desire to add to that from a playing perspective now. What was done was done. Ireland won the Test series 2-0. The end justified the means.

Now almost 40 years on, we return under Joe Schmidt as Grand Slam champions and in search of a second series success and by way of better travelling conditions and communications access.

I have been on five tours to Australia and, apart from the first, have loved every one. My abiding memory of flying in over the harbour and seeing the Sydney Opera House for the very first time is of Paul Andreucetti in the seat beside me introducing me to Dire Straits and specifically 'Sultans of Swing' as we lowered for landing. That musical masterpiece and iconic landmark are indelibly linked in my mind.

The detail of what transpired on that personal tour from hell is well documented. It was either Colm Smith from this parish or Bob Messenger representing the old 'Irish Press' who described my experience as 'a star not fallen but dragged down'. I would never describe myself as "a star" but whether a player thinks of themselves that way or not, it's what happens in the aftermath of them receiving bad news that decides whether such decisions leave a scar.

Of course, I was devastated when I was dropped - it was in Surfers Paradise that I found out through one of my closer team-mates - because even though the game was strictly amateur at the time, it was the all-consuming passion in my life.

I felt lonely and isolated which was added to enormously by being so far from home. Pat Whelan and Moss Keane were the exceptions in trying to comfort and console me in the hours and days that followed.

And therein lies the biggest lesson, one that I have taken through my own career in coaching and which is as relevant today in the professional game as it was back then.

Not that a star was dragged to earth but that a player was left in isolation by those central to making that decision and specifically the management of Jack Coffey, Noel Murphy and Fergus Slattery as manager, coach and captain respectively.

It is the prerogative of any coach - or by extension team management - to make any decision they deem to be in the best interest of the team for any specific match. If, for example, Schmidt decides Joey Carbery or Ross Byrne might be better suited than Johnny Sexton to taking on Bernard Foley then that is their call. Or if Schmidt decides in his wisdom to speculate with a plan B ahead of the World Cup and that necessitates Sexton's omission then so be it.

While we are dealing in fantasy here, it is not the dropping of the player, any player, but it is how that player is handled in the aftermath in terms of being respected enough to have the reasons for the decision given to them, or what they need to do in order to get back into the line-up. It puts everyone on the same page, sends out clear messages and presents goals for the player to reach.

Even in today's game of meticulous preparation I still hear of players shunned in training camps when they are not in the match-day 23. Nothing like it was in Oz in '79 whereby I can state categorically that nobody in a position of coaching relevance told me why I was dropped for the opening Test at Ballymore or, more to the point, what I might need to improve or develop to get back in again.

As a lesson in how to shatter a player's confidence, one who thrived on that precious commodity and needed the arm around the shoulder as distinct from the kick up the arse this was the perfect execution.

To borrow the final few paragraphs from my 2015 autobiography 'Twelve Feet Tall': "Am I bitter all these years on? I think the answer is self-evident. With hand on heart it is not being dropped that gets me. That comes with the territory of team sports. My issue is with the lack of empathy.

"I was a young and very promising rugby player who wanted to play rugby, nothing more, nothing less, and despite the perception peddled then and since, nothing beyond that. Like most I suffered from nerves in the build-up to big games, but put me on a football pitch on the big day and I was Superman on speed. That was taken away in an instant in Australia.

"Whether it is a Henry Shefflin, a 'Gooch' Cooper or a Brian O'Driscoll, however bright the star there is no divine right to selection. What should be given, however, is a level of compassion in how the situation is handled and in ensuring the player concerned is provided with the relevant knowledge and opportunity to work and find a way back".

Lesson learnt but at some cost.

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