Thursday 18 January 2018

Tony Ward: Cronin throws down gauntlet to Ireland rival Best

Leinster's Sean Cronin prepares to throw the ball into the line-out on Saturday
Leinster's Sean Cronin prepares to throw the ball into the line-out on Saturday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

So much for the solid dress rehearsal we all advocate a week ahead of the opening round of the best rugby competition there is. Last week, Leinster failed to show at Thomond Park.

Well, one week on and no doubt on the back of some harsh words from Matt O'Connor and Jono Gibbes, Leinster were a different animal entirely in Wales.

Our outstanding province of recent times were back to their best against the top Welsh region – one with huge aspirations. On Saturday, when it mattered, the three-time champions were equally effective with the ball or without.

There have been much more aesthetically pleasing performances, when Leinster tries rained down, but away from home this was the complete package.

The replacements slotted in seamlessly, with Luke Fitzgerald, Eoin Reddan, Jack McGrath, Quin Roux and Rhys Ruddock coming on in the final quarter to close the game – and most impressive of all was Martin Moore's immense contribution when called aboard for the hitherto irreplaceable Mike Ross on the quarter-hour mark. No coach can ask for more.

Following in the footsteps of Joe Schmidt was never going to be easy, but what a great start for O'Connor. It's just one result, but the former Leicester Tigers coach has certainly laid down a marker and established a foundation.

Responsibility

In individual terms the demand was for the senior pros (particularly in the absence of Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and Brian O'Driscoll) to step up to the mark and take responsibility.

Well they certainly did that. Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Jimmy Gopperth and Gordon D'Arcy delivered the type of result-influencing performance the occasion demanded.

Picking a man of the match was nigh on impossible – while O'Brien got the official nod, any one of the other five named could have walked away with the gong.

The five Irishmen in that sextet have put themselves firmly in the frame for Schmidt and his November series selection.

Cronin, O'Brien and Gopperth shared the most eye-catching moments but all six ran themselves into the ground with their tackle count and work rate off the ball.

Those who criticise Heaslip (when he is less conspicuous with ball in hand) fail to recognise the utterly selfless dimension to his game.

And like all hookers, Cronin gets pilloried for his throwing into the line-out from time to time. Well on Saturday at the Liberty Stadium it was close to perfection.

Rory Best, despite a disappointing Lions tour, appears to be in pole position for the Ireland No 2 shirt, but on this impressive evidence it will take some effort on the Ulsterman's part to keep Cronin from finally imposing himself at Test level.

It's game on in the race for the hooking berth to face Samoa, Australia and New Zealand next month.

It was not just the old hands who stood out for Leinster. Brendan Macken, Dave Kearney and the increasingly impressive Moore were unfazed by the step up.

Kevin McLaughlin too has laid down his marker to Jennings for a back-row spot, while Ruddock in his late cameo and siege-lifting run was the central figure in making it a two-score game, crucially denying Ospreys even a bonus point in a 'pool of death' destined to go to the wire.

But back to Gopperth – the decision to select him ahead of Ian Madigan was totally justified on pragmatic grounds.

What the New Zealander brings to the pivotal position more than anything is an air of calm assurance that others around him automatically buy into.

Already at this early stage in his Leinster career, he is the type of player you look to in a crisis. He is the complete opposite to the 'sunshine player' who makes his mark when playing off the front foot, with everything going his way.

For Madigan, his arrival is unfortunate in the sense of first-up selection but were I in his shoes now I would be observing Gopperth's every move and general demeanour in training, because Leinster have pulled a masterstroke in enticing the former Hurricanes and Blues player on board as extra cover in place of the departed Jonny Sexton.

Gopperth is the real deal. Already, after just a handful of games since signing from Newcastle Falcons, he is ahead of Paddy Jackson, Madigan, Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan as the most complete No 10 plying his trade on these shores.

The criticism shipped by Keatley on the back of Munster's defeat in Edinburgh is unfair and over the top. The out-half, much like the hooker when the line-out goes askew, is the easiest and laziest of targets.

Keatley is not Ronan O'Gara, nor will he ever be. If it were Dan Carter shipped in to fill the void he too would be facing that inevitable and unfair comparison.

The point is that Keatley and/or Hanrahan offer Rob Penney the skill-set on which to build the more inclusive handling game he is trying to inculcate at the province.

I suspect there will be more pain before the gain truly manifests itself, but in the meantime it's madness to criticise Keatley for not being an O'Gara prototype.

On the plus side, Conor Murray (despite that rush of blood when putting boot to ball in the final minute), Paul O'Connell, Casey Laulala, Keith Earls, Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin had their good moments, but Munster's failing in Edinburgh was collective.

Their inability to close out a game they had under control was out of character. And yes, Keatley has a bit to learn in that key respect at top European level too.

Ulster produced the sort of performance almost guaranteed at Ravenhill against top-class opposition. It was one to savour.

Jackson, Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Jared Payne, Dan Tuohy, Roger Wilson and Nick Williams were the stand-out performers in a deserved if hard-earned win over gnarled opposition.

Connacht too were immense coming so close to repeating the daring Sportsground deeds they produced against Harlequins and Biarritz in recent times. George Naoupu, Jake Heenan, Rob Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Brett Wilkinson were the home side's game shapers in another brave if ultimately losing Connacht performance.

Connacht could have won, Munster should have won and both Ulster and Leinster deservedly did, making it a reasonable opening round for the Irish sides.

However, just one game into the new campaign and the pressure on Munster will be intense when Gloucester (who can forget the miracle match of 2003?) run out in Limerick on Saturday evening. Would we expect it any other way?

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