Saturday 17 March 2018

Tony Ward: O'Mahony must face Toulouse – even if he's on one leg

Injured flanker as vital as O'Connell to Munster's back-to-basics game plan

Munster will be hoping that Peter O'Mahony can recover in time to face Toulouse
Munster will be hoping that Peter O'Mahony can recover in time to face Toulouse
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It was always interesting and compellingly competitive, yet never a classic. It was, however, the perfect dress rehearsal for what lies ahead for both provinces in a few days' time.

Given the gap between Heineken Cup round six and the quarter-finals, where the players are marked absent from their clubs for an eight-week period, this is as good as it gets in terms of mental and physical preparation for victor and vanquished.

Munster will be disappointed for sure, but they know that behind this bragging-right success for Leinster is the formula to hit Thomond Park with the appropriate tempo for the clash with Toulouse at the weekend.

I will deal with that and other issues in finer detail later in the week but for now let us concentrate on a top-of-the-table Pro12 clash won by the better all-round team, playing the better-tailored rugby for the bulk of a fair-to-middling encounter.

Aside from the opening quarter, when Munster managed to attack Leinster where they were most vulnerable, and the final phase when they threw caution to the wind, it was the blue corner in control, if never quite translating that territorial advantage and possession into points.

The fact that Munster led 12-6 at the break was a minor miracle, due in no small measure to that initial superiority at the scrum, where Dave Kilcoyne managed to expel a lot of recent frustration from the system.


Michael Bent struggled a bit too as expected against BJ Botha but the fact that the entire Leinster back-row – particularly Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip – still managed to eclipse their Munster counterparts represented the most emphatic statement of the night.

It also highlighted, if any further evidence was necessary, the importance of Peter O'Mahony to Munster. He is every bit as vital a cog in the Reds machine as Paul O'Connell.

And, given his relative inexperience, that is saying something. Munster missed O'Mahony every bit as much as Leinster missed Cian Healy.

On the assumption Donnacha Ryan fails to make it in time for Toulouse, it is imperative O'Mahony runs out in Limerick, even on one leg. His physical and psychological presence is that important.

With the Corkman on board it will be a different Munster animal in action in the quarter-final. Yes, they are still struggling to create any meaningful incision behind the scrum but no side left in the tournament does the bread-and-butter basics better than Rob Penney's men.

Sometimes, Munster winning in this competition defies rugby logic, but that is how it has always been.

Against Leinster, they did manage some productivity in the latter stages, particularly when Simon Zebo came in off his wing. Surely Penney will give him a similar free-roaming role against Toulouse,

That said, for all the huffing and puffing he and Casey Laulala offered at the Aviva Stadium, it was the old dogs for the hard road, in Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and the blue defensive wall, that were in cruise control.

Indeed, when Leinster put together a string of patient phases a telling break always looked likely, whether sparked by Eoin Reddan at the base of the scrum or Rob Kearney on the back of some loose and indiscriminate kicking, of which both sides were guilty. The most tangible threat beyond numbers one to eight was always in blue.

Just four points separated the sides at the final blast of Alain Rolland's over-used whistle.

The referee wasn't in any way responsible for the mess that was the scrum on Saturday. But in all the years I have watched our top man officiate, never can I recall him engage in so much verbal interaction, much of it, in my view, unnecessary.

Of the players with most to prove, only Zebo and Luke Fitzgerald in flashes and Kilcoyne on occasion managed to add anything of substance to their cause.

Both out-halves kicked well off the ground but indifferently out of hand, with Ian Madigan marginally the more effective this time and still, for me, the second best available to Joe Schmidt beyond Johnny Sexton.

Madigan's primary battle lies with Leinster rival Jimmy Gopperth as he bids to convince the Ireland coach of his Test worth, while Ian Keatley is ahead of JJ Hanrahan for Munster, despite the latter's ability to innovate off the cuff.

Unfortunately for the talented Kerryman, it is the 'back-to-basics Munster' who must strive for glory at the business end of the season. Hanrahan's time will come but, until they somehow unearth a greater attacking edge, the need for a link and runner at 10 is second to the approach of old.

For Leinster, there are no such worries. They have by far the more difficult task ahead in Toulon but, no more than you would back against Munster at Thomond, you wouldn't bet against Leinster on the road.

Ulster, by contrast, returned to bad habits when surrendering to Cardiff in the absence of Ruan Pienaar (an excuse simply not acceptable). It made for a bad day at the Arms Park – one best forgotten – while down in the Valleys at Parc y Scarlets, Connacht, despite losing, managed two bonus points in another hugely encouraging performance under Pat Lam.

The frustration still comes from the extraordinary effort it takes to get back into games only for it to be followed by the most fundamental errors when handing back that hard-won initiative.

On the plus side, however, is a whole clutch of young players growing in confidence and experience. And therein lies the real plus from this weekend.

The serious hands went up for international recognition, not in the Aviva, but in Llanelli where Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley and Eoin McKeon stood out with substantial performances that will not have gone unnoticed by Schmidt.


Place for everyone in Leinster schools' vision

Congratulations to Conor Montayne and the Leinster Schools Committee on their recent initiative aimed at school leavers 2014. Leinster Rugby has prioritised the transfer of age-grade players (schools and youths) into the adult game.

As someone who encounters the cherry-picking and ridiculous incentives offered to the cream of the underage rugby crop on an annual basis, I am greatly encouraged by this initiative, whereby representatives of the branch will visit schools to talk to players of all abilities and talents and not just the top first-team players.

The aim is to keep as many as possible involved in the game after they complete their Leaving Certificate and move on from school.

Rugby needs players, coaches, referees, team managers, trainers and some with other skills too – including those with public relations and social media communicative ability – to get involved.

The objective is to convince all underage rugby lovers that the game, now more than ever, is one for all shapes, sizes and talents and not just the first-team elite.

I urge every school to support this undertaking by making their sixth years available to meet with the various branch representatives at a mutually suitable time.

Walking up the winning steps on St Patrick's weekend is important but nowhere near as a continuing involvement in this great game for life.

Irish Independent

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