Tuesday 23 January 2018

Tony Ward: Healthy competition as six of Ireland’s best must prove themselves to seal Six Nations start

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I guess there is a parallel with politics. When you put yourself in the public eye in professional coaching, you're open to praise or ridicule. Win and you're the best mentor in the world – lose and you're the cause of every problem afflicting the country bar the economic collapse.

To be a top-class coach, at least one who endures, 'skin made of leather' must be near the top of your resume. Rugby supporters in this neck of the woods can slag Declan Kidney all they want, but, unlike some of his predecessors, Kidney has always treated praise and criticism in the same calm manner.

I have been taken aback at much of the post-series comment on the November internationals. In broad terms, what is being peddled – by many of those who had been preparing to dance on this Ireland management's grave – is that "the changed strategy did the trick."

What an over-simplified and patently bland line. As one fortunate to have played this game at every level bar professional, I defy anyone explain to me how the "game plan" or "Plan B," as we so often hear it referred to by many self-appointed experts, differed against Argentina to that attempted against the South Africans?


Let me declare that I have no insider knowledge. Like everyone else, what I witnessed against Argentina and Fiji was a tweaking of the attacking lines with ball in hand.

Here Kidney and Les Kiss must be accorded the credit they deserve, specifically against the Pumas, whereby, with space set to be at a premium, Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Keith Earls ran, at different stages, different lateral attacking lines.

In the process they invited those further out to engage as either ball receivers or decoy runners, but, in the process, keeping the inflexible Argentinian defence guessing through clever and varied changes in angle and point of attack.

It created chaos and sparked an extraordinary return of seven Irish tries in this most unforgiving of fixtures. More to the point, it restored the collective core confidence so badly eroded since the New Zealand tour last summer.

Mercifully, it is the French who have emerged as the northern hemisphere's team of the November internationals, so they are the hot favourites going into the Six Nations, now little more than a couple of months away.

New Zealand rugby continues to be the model to which we must all aspire, but, on the basis of recognising our strength and playing to it, the Kiwi off-loading game is out of this developing Irish group's ability at this point in time.

Should Sean O'Brien, Stephen Ferris and Brian O'Driscoll return fit and firing come February, then that will create the opportunity to advance a little further up that most effective attacking route. Dynamic off-loading in the tackle is the aspiration, but, for now, the style displayed against Argentina, combining consistent primary possession with clever and varied backline movement, offers the most sensible way to go for Ireland.

If nothing else, the Fijian and Argentinian games have thrown the cat amongst the pigeons for Six Nations selection. I genuinely believe Kidney, Kiss, Gert Smal et al have been hugely impacted upon by what they witnessed throughout the month in Carton House, but more specifically when that enthusiasm was put to the test in Limerick and at the Aviva.

The eye-catching displays have heaped pressure on the tried and trusted of Rory Best, Paul O'Connell, Ferris, O'Brien, O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney to deliver a level of performance in Heineken Cup and Pro12 worthy of Test consideration come February.

In their significant absence the call was for new leaders to stand up and in skipper Jamie Heaslip, out-half Sexton and lock Donnacha Ryan, we had three who did that and more.

What prompted the recent wave of Heaslip criticism is beyond me. The guy is as honest and selfless as the day is long. O'Driscoll may well return to the leadership role, but Heaslip has proved himself more than up to the task in a neatly balanced back-row, where Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry have both added appreciably to the type of selection headache needed when we hit Cardiff on February 2.


Also deserving of a mention is Tommy Bowe, who, by his own admission, feels the time is right to be more forceful vis a vis his status within this squad.

While occupying a somewhat isolated position hardly helps, the raw enthusiasm he consistently demonstrates makes him the No 1 kick/chase exponent in the game. Closely followed by Kearney, there is no one better at retrieving possession in the air.

The second-half catch, from a Sexton Garryowen, against the Pumas encapsulated what he and, indeed, what this team were all about on a very good day for Irish rugby.

Indeed, in terms of the totality of the performance – backs and forwards interchanging so effectively for close on 80 minutes – I struggle to think of one better at least since Ireland's demolition of England in Croker in 2007.

Indicative, too, of the spirit of the day was that of an Irish eight patting and encouraging each other throughout. It might seem small fry, but it is the type of mid-battle body language that does send out the right signals to opponents and spectators alike.

We are still some way off perfect, but immeasurably better positioned than this time last month.

Put simply, in early November, had all been fit and well, the Ireland team virtually picked itself and the head coach stayed with the devil he knew.

Now, with the Welsh next up, I would struggle to name the 23 most deserving players to run out at the Millennium.

Suffice to say, I expect the main man to be of like mind.

Farrell's nomination truly bizarre

How a panel comprising such iconic figures as John Eales, Will Greenwood, Gavin Hastings, Raphael Ibanez, Paul Wallace, Francois Pienaar, Agustin Pichot, Scott Quinnell and Tana Umaga could come up with a shortlist of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Freddie Michalak and Owen Farrell for the 2012 IRB Player of the Year is beyond me and, I'm sure, most readers out there.

In 2009 Brian O'Driscoll was badly short-changed when not awarded the ultimate global gong at a time in his career when it was unquestionably most deserved.

Three-time winner McCaw took it that season somewhat sheepishly.

That said, if there is any justice or common sense remaining in this nine-man committee, then 2012 should see the All Black skipper stroll in for a mind-blowing fourth individual accolade.

He may not possess quite the same skill set as Lionel Messi, but McCaw is to rugby what the Argentinian genius is to soccer, simply an influential class apart.

But Farrell and Michalak in the final shake-up ahead of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Kieran Read? Let's not go there!

Hansen's blind bias an embarrassment to game

Quote of the week ... not.

Here is one beauty the game could well do without.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said: "I'm resigned to the fact that he (Andrew Hore) has been cited.

"It happens every time we come 'up here'."

Bear in mind he (Hansen) coached 'up here,' this suggests that the disgraceful off-the-ball hit we witnessed on Bradley Davies last Saturday in Cardiff, which earned Hore a five-week suspension, would be acceptable 'down there.'

In the scramble for loyalty, even the most sensible of men occasionally lose their marbles.

Irish Independent

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