Wednesday 21 March 2018

Tony Ward: Congested game on road to 13-a-side in battle for survival

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So, how was it for you? For me, if I'm being really honest, the Six nations was average -- just about. However, I worry greatly about the game and where it is going.

Despite all the criticism, I applaud Paddy O'Brien and his fellow law-makers at Huguenot House for battling against the odds in their crusade to free up space for that precious fluidity we all crave.

We must never give up the fight, but how do you create space on a battlefield invented in the 19th-century for warriors light years removed from the beefed-up, super-charged mega-fit professional combatants of today?

Rugby league didn't reduce from 15 to 13 just to be different from rugby union. They did so as the only logical solution to the problem confronting union now.

I dread the day it happens, but, however long it does take, this is the direction we are heading in, because, in the final analysis money -- and with it survival -- talks loudest.

Modern rugby union is just about related to the game that preceded the Paris Accord, but whatever links remain, they are diminishing by the year. Call your venerable contributor a crackpot, but rugby union has some serious and fundamental decisions to make if it is to survive as a viable alternative to other sporting codes into the 21st century.

As of now, certainly in this part of the planet, success is paving over the cracks. Success in any walk attracts interest, but heaven forbid it dries up, because then we've got ourselves a real problem.

Another issue for another day perhaps, but this is another reason for not writing off the bigger Croke Park playing arena as a potential rugby venue in the future.


Ireland, meanwhile, are reasonably positioned in the build-up to New Zealand 2011, but with definite cause for concern. Had we beaten the Scots it would have represented the 'soft landing', a satisfactory follow-up to last year's Grand Slam.

What the Scottish defeat showed is that we are nowhere near the force we think we are and, much like the game itself, with structural deficiencies in need of address.

Our scrum IS suspect and despite a growing list of front-row alternatives, there is no obvious fix. The primary objective in the four June games must be to unearth three front-line selections and that should exclude John Hayes (from this tour) both in his and the team's interest. Cian Healy has it within him to become a serious player in the tight at this level. He is already established in the Nick Popplewell/Phil Orr mould as a round-the-field presence, but there are scrummaging technicalities which unfortunately don't just come as a matter of course. Here, scrum coaches Reggie Corrigan at Leinster and Paul McCarthy with Ireland will be essential.

Between Healy, Marcus Horan, Tom Court, Mike Ross and Tony Buckley, at least three alternatives to Hayes must be found. And, while I accept the great technical differences between loose-head and tight-head, all five props should travel with the willingness to at least experiment on either side.

For the sake of Ireland's first centurion and his involvement in New Zealand 2011, I hope that common sense prevails and both Hayes and coach agree on the benefit of him resting up at home.

Beyond that there is still the high-profile issue of out-half. Were a team being picked right now, I suspect Kidney might lean towards starting Ronan O'Gara.

On the plus side, Horan, Denis Leamy, Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O'Brien are all working their way back from injury.

Of the seven-man bench against the Scots, one suspects that three, at best four, had the full faith of the main man in a mid-match crisis. The business end of the Heineken Cup and Magners League will provide a setting for some on the fringe to make their play.

We remain in fifth spot in the IRB world rankings, behind New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France. It's a fair assessment, but with the gap between the French and Irish, though narrow in points, wider in reality. Les Bleus were by some way the outstanding team of the Six Nations. They appear the northern hemisphere's best World Cup bet, but whether they are ready to beat the big three, I'm not so sure.

Despite the bulldog resilience of their finishing performance in Paris, the English are still in a rut. The Welsh excite, but, much like us, attack at times without a base. Injury has hit hard, but they remain a dangerous force at full strength.

The Italians achieved their Holy Grail by way of that one championship win. The Six Nations needs a competitive Azzurri presence and Magners League entrance represents a positive step forward.

As for the Scots? They were, for me, the best of the four Home Nations. The Rome debacle aside -- and they could have won that too -- they played with structure and energy founded on a most solid forward base. If they and the Italians can up the ante even more, then the final Six Nations before the World Cup could prove the most competitive to date.

Irish Independent

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