Saturday 16 December 2017

Tony Ward: McCarthy arrival can’t come soon enough for Leinster

Leinster had what amounts to an 'Eamonn Coghlan experience' over the weekend. Just as our greatest ever middle distance athlete finished fourth (twice) at the Olympics, so too, in a sense, did our European champions rugby team at the weekend.

They did what they had to do by way of the four-try, bonus-point win but it wasn't enough. Finishing ninth in the race for a place in the last eight is akin to finishing just outside the medals on the biggest athletics stage at all.

There are few positives for Joe Schmidt. Yes, some of the rugby was riveting but that merely adds to the frustration of a team returning to full strength. We all know what they can do when firing on all cylinders and with Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Sean Cronin and Sean O'Brien providing the type of forward momentum upon which any team would thrive, there were real indications of a champion team returning to champion form at just the right time.

Against that was a misfiring lineout minus the massively influential Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn and it showed. At least Mike McCarthy is on the way. The rights and wrongs of this sensitive transfer have been dealt with. It's now a done deal and, from a Leinster point of view, it can't happen quickly enough.


Quite where the technical problem lies for the malfunction out of touch is beyond this former back. However, how those who throw (hookers), those who catch (locks and back-rowers) and those who support (the rest) cannot fine-tune daily practice for match-day precision leaves me perplexed.

I can only draw a parallel with kicking, whereby repetitive practice makes for improved accuracy. Of course, other factors come into play but when this fundamental part of the game is consistently out of sorts then it's time to focus on getting it right.

The raw material – size and experience – is clearly there but it's just not working. The easy option is to blame the throwers every time. In Strauss and Cronin, Leinster possess the two most dynamic hookers by a mile but until one or other hits their targets with consistent precision, then the coach has a problem.

And on the subject of hookers, I'm delighted to see Mike Sherry and Damien Varley called up to the national squad. These two, along with the Leinster duo and Rory Best, make for five quite exceptional players in the position. On Sunday in Limerick – Simon Zebo's try-scoring tour de force apart – Sherry was outstanding and vied with Dave Kilcoyne, Peter O'Mahony and the on-fire wing for man of the match.

When the opposition pack is reduced to seven, then it's time for the back-row to shine and that is what O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and James Coughlan did once Antoine Battut was shown red. Throw in Paddy Butler, CJ Stander, Sean Dougall, Dave O'Callaghan, Niall Ronan, Billy Holland and Barry O'Mahony and I doubt, even in the glory days of Anthony Foley, Denis Leamy, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace et al, the southern province has ever picked from such strength in depth.

And Donncha O'Callaghan has really stepped up to the mark in form and leadership alongside the outstanding Donnacha Ryan. O'Callaghan is, on current form, a serious rival to McCarthy for a place in the second-row alongside Ryan to face the Welsh.

With the obvious exceptions of Paul O'Connell and Stephen Ferris, the pack to take on the Welsh appears in great nick. The form of Healy, Kilcoyne and Tom Court in the No 1 shirt for their respective provinces has been top-notch of late.

Tighthead is limited as ever to the survival of Mike Ross – a totally unsatisfactory state of affairs – but we are where we are and have been for quite some time now. The ultimate nightmare would be a repeat of Twickenham last March.

Behind the scrum, Eoin Reddan was razor sharp up to the time of his knock in Exeter. Conor Murray continues to grow in stature with Munster and while the switch of Ruan Pienaar to 10 – thereby facilitating the third best scrum-half Paul Marshall – didn't exactly set the world on fire in Castres, Marshall should still be the man to face the Saxons (alongside Paddy Jackson) when that Wolfhounds team is named later today.

Beyond that, Gordon D'Arcy and, most encouragingly, Brian O'Driscoll were full of invention and high-tempo involvement at Sandy Park, with each registering a well-taken try. And despite a couple of loose passes, allied to a dubious early decision to turn inside, Keith Earls in Limerick was in similar influential form to D'Arcy and O'Driscoll.

Craig Gilroy (at full-back) and Andrew Trimble got little chance to shine in horrendous conditions in Castres, but Luke Fitzgerald in Exeter and most particularly Zebo at Thomond were heavily involved throughout. While a place simply has to be found for Zebo to face the Welsh, Fitzgerald is firmly back in the frame and a very live candidate for Six Nations selection.

At full-back, Rob Kearney is the one and only. Again in Exeter, he was solidity personified. And if there is a cover selection then Rob Henshaw is surely it. The Saxons game, taking place as it does at the Sportsground, looks the ideal opportunity to launch the next phase of an already meteoric representative career.

We await the announcement of this shadow xv with more than a passing interest.

Irish Independent

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