Sport Rugby

Sunday 25 February 2018

Tony Ward: Fickle fans a blight on modern game

Rugby getting like soccer in stampede to judge coaches on one-off results

Rob Penney will leave Munster at the end of the season
Rob Penney will leave Munster at the end of the season
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Whatever your take on modern against old, on professional versus amateur, in one sad way rugby today is different. Yes, the critics were out in force prior to pay-for-play, but result-based fickleness was nothing like it is now.

I am talking about the Heineken Cup – a level of the game in which we consistently punch above our weight.

Seven days ago we were three wins short of hosting both semi-finals, including one with an All-Ireland dimension that would have brought the nation to a halt.

Alas, it wasn't to be, for while Munster did the business – and in some style – Ulster were unfairly robbed of the opportunity to make it through to a third European final.

I have little doubt that despite losing Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar and Nick Williams to injury, had it been a full on fair engagement – as in 15 against 15, Mark Anscombe's men would have beaten Saracens at Ravenhill.

Jerome Garces' match-defining decision (just five minutes in) was admirable in intent but fundamentally flawed and in my view plain wrong.

The magnitude of Ulster's magnificent victory away to Leicester Tigers in their final pool match – which secured them a home quarter-final – was undone by an 'iffy' decision. That can't be right.


The 14 players were heroic against all odds, underlining once again the excellent job being done by head coach Anscombe in his second season at the helm.

The issue that astounds me is the fickleness surrounding victory and defeat. I don't need to cite Rudyard Kipling's overused take on triumph and disaster – I'm sure you get the drift.

Professional rugby may be still in the cradle when compared to soccer but in terms of judging coaches purely on results we are already well down that pot-holed road and closing whatever gap still exists ever more rapidly.

Leinster were well beaten in Toulon, and on the back of a poor performance, questions are being asked of Matt O'Connor, but the sad truth is, if Joe Schmidt had lost this game he too would be in the firing line.

I now read that Rob Penney is apparently not getting the credit he deserves for 'turning Munster around'.

Who invents this stuff?

Had Munster lost to Toulouse last Saturday, you can bet your bottom Euro the quick-fix merchants wouldn't be able to get Penney on that flight to Japan quickly enough (or indeed Simon Mannix to on a flight to Pau).

The truth of course lies as ever somewhere in between, as 'sack the coach and all will be well' becomes the mantra of warped bloggers and new-age rugby fans.

Leinster's main man no more became a poor coach on the back of one poor result in Toulon than his Munster counterpart became Merlin the Magician on the basis of a brilliant display in Limerick.

Once Penney and Mannix came to grips with the culture and tradition of Munster rugby, the only way was up.

Gone is the madcap desire to reinvent the southern rugby wheel and change the successful habits of a lifetime. Munster rugby, and the current coaching duo, are much the better for it.

Of course we would all like to see more indigenous coaches involved in our professional game, but whatever else Anthony Foley may bring to the Munster coaching table, he is not going to wave any magic wand.

Penney may not be the most demonstrative or communicative of coaches but he has done a very good job in marrying the old ways with the new.

It is a transitional period for Munster rugby and he has contributed significantly to bringing a more seamless change about.

In making the final four in Europe for the second year running and despite the overhyped, madcap expectations, he has more than justified his initial appointment.

And that is the true measure of any coach, even in professional times – will he leave the team better off than they were when he arrived?

In that key respect, the Penney legacy is good.

'A' team woes a big concern for Reds

Given what transpired last weekend it might seem an inappropriate time to highlight concerns about the only province still on course for a coveted domestic league and European Cup double.

However, anyone attending the Leinster 'A' v Munster 'A' B&I head to head (about 50,000 less than the Aviva the previous week!) cannot but have been dismayed at this quarter-final mismatch.

To say Leinster won pulling up would be almost doing them a disservice, so great was the difference in organisation, playing patterns and attacking variation between the sides.

What seemed on paper, as alluded to by both coaches (Peter Malone and Girvan Dempsey) in advance, a typically tense, evenly-matched derby turned out to be anything but.

The 47-15 scoreline was fully reflective of the vast chasm in skill and organisation between the provinces at 'A' level at this point in time.

Aside from a slight spurt coming up to the interval and greater urgency immediately after, the difference between the shadow squads was massive.

Allied to Leinster's ongoing dominance of the Schools Inter-provincial Championship year on year plus the vast difference in skill and intensity between the respective school finals this year, if alarm bells aren't yet ringing they certainly should. Not quite panic stations but serious room for concern.

Payne ban another miscarriage of justice

So, because "there were no aggravating factors, and taking into account the player's clean disciplinary record plus his exemplary conduct at the hearing, the judicial officer reduced the three-week sanction by the maximum of one week and imposed a suspension of two. Jared Payne is free to play on Monday, April 21".

I doubt Payne and Ulster will be dancing in the aisles over this. Ulster have been robbed of a key man for some big Pro12 games and the player himself has been handed a two-week suspension for what was an innocent and unintentional act.

It may be a mere fortnight suspension, but if this isn't a miscarriage of justice then I don't know what is.

Yes, the Ulster full-back's aerial challenge on Alex Goode during Saturday's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens was reckless, but it was never a red-card offence to merit a three-week suspension, which has 'compassionately' been reduced to two.

I must have played a different game entirely, for with respect to Simon Thomas, the judicial officer, this call is wrong, plain wrong.

The two-week suspension serves little purpose other than to vindicate the referee for a harsh decision that should never have been made.

IRFU deserve credit for sending side to Romania

While I still find it difficult to comprehend why we are the only top rugby-playing nation – even the Italians lined out in Hong Kong – marked absent from Sevens involvement, the IRFU can take a pat on the back for its decision to send an Emerging Ireland team to Romania in June.

There they will take part in the IRB Nations Cup alongside the host nation ( ranked 17th), Russia (19th) and Uruguay (20th). Dan McFarland and Neil Doak will coach, while Joey Miles will manage the squad, which is set to be announced just ahead of the tournament.

O'Mahony will play key role behind scenes – Penney

Irish Independent

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