Tuesday 20 February 2018

Tony Ward: Pain of Cardiff can give Saints the extra edge

Jonathan Sexton scoring the try that sparked Leinster's comeback in the 2011 final
Jonathan Sexton scoring the try that sparked Leinster's comeback in the 2011 final
Northampton captain Dylan Hartley leaves the Heineken Cup podium at the Millennium Stadium in 2011 without getting his hands on the trophy following a defeat to Leinster that is likely to be at the forefront of his minds ahead of today’s clash
Darren Cave
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

According to US financial magazine 'Forbes', Ireland has been ranked as the best country in the world to do business. Highly encouraging though that news is, it is hardly likely to change the lives of many in the run up to Christmas.

But there is an optimistic message coming through and, in a rugby context, we need reminding that when it comes to competitiveness we consistently punch well above our weight.

Yes we lost two of our three Autumn Internationals but we could and should have won two. The one that got away hardly needs any elaboration now other than to re-emphasise that for over 81 minutes we had the best team in the world (possibly in history) – the reigning world champions – on the rack.

For a small sporting nation in which rugby is still ranked behind Gaelic games and soccer that takes some doing. It's worth noting ahead of this series of Heineken Cup games that should Munster get the better of Perpignan in Limerick tomorrow, the southern province along with Leinster and Ulster (obviously results pending), could enter the return leg of these back-to-back fixtures at the top of their respective pools.

To that add a Pro12 table that reads Munster, Leinster and Ulster positioned first, second and third (alongside Glasgow) respectively. Perhaps it's because of 2009 (when we swept the boards) our expectations at provincial and international levels have shot through the roof. We believe in setting the bar ever higher but we need to keep our expectations in check.


Losing to New Zealand was massively disappointing but it should have provided a timely reminder as to just how good we can be when we believe in ourselves and perform accordingly.

That should be the message Rob Penney, Matt O'Connor, Mark Anscombe (and Pat Lam too) pass on to players ahead of the key phase of the Heineken Cup.

A good start is crucial, whether it be Six Nations or the October series in the Heineken Cup. But there is something magical about this back-to-back phase where early form can be turned on its head or a win one week can be kicked into oblivion seven days later.

It is that unpredictability which makes this fortnight so unique. Far from being down following an invigorating November series, the Irish public will be buoyed by this phase.

So what can we expect? Well, first into action later this evening are Leinster at Franklin's Gardens and Ulster in fortress Ravenhill. Leinster's clash with Northampton has all the ingredients to be tie of the round. The best of English versus the best of Irish in a repeat of that 2011 'final of finals'.

Although they lost in a remarkable turnaround you can be sure the Saints see this as an opportunity to claw back some of the psychological ground lost to Leinster that day in Cardiff. It is probably the most difficult tie of the 12 fixtures to call but this one already smacks of last chance saloon for Northampton.

The English midlands club have always had a great relationship with Irish rugby, going back to the annual fixture with Bective Rangers when one of Dylan Hartley's predecessors, Jon Raphael, starred in the No 2 shirt for both clubs.

O'Connor knows a thing or two about today's opposition, given the time he spent at Welford Road, where the rivalry between Leicester and Northampton was on a par with the rivalry between Munster and Leinster. Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings might have a say too. But given the stakes of a game the home team can't afford to lose, I'm going for Northampton to shade it, but with a qualification – I do actually enjoy eating humble pie.

Verdict: Northampton.

Anscombe has said all the right things ahead of Treviso's arrival in Belfast, but he and his team know that this is bonus-point territory, and the opportunity to bag four tries must not be missed.

Verdict : Ulster.

Tomorrow in Limerick, Munster entertain Perpignan at 12.45. Whether driven by Sky or ERC, the ridiculously early kick-off is unnecessary and exerts unfair pressure on everybody involved.

Those who suggested the blip in Edinburgh in Round 1 was caused by a similar early start are in denial. Munster were simply awful that day. But with eight wins out of nine to top the Pro12 added to one from two in Europe, without playing particularly well, Munster rugby is in a good place. If they can maximise Casey Laulala's creative ability they could become a serious proposition to go the whole way. For now it's one step at a time.

Verdict : Munster.

At the Stade Ernest-Wallon, Lam and luckless Connacht enter the lion's den. They were there two years ago under similar circumstances (although better positioned in the domestic league at the time) and put in a spirited shift culminating in an honourable 24-3 defeat to table-topping Toulouse.

Guy Noves' French 'galacticos' may not be the force they were but they have the bit between their teeth and if Connacht were to deny them a try-scoring bonus it would represent an achievement for John Muldoon and company – giving them something concrete upon which to build going forward to the rematch and beyond.

Verdict: Toulouse.

Fiji's Sevens excellence a lesson to take on board

On Saturday last at Twickenham, Fijian rugby marked its centenary with a celebration match against the Barbarians.

The South Sea Islanders lined out below full strength due to a number of their professionally contracted players being otherwise engaged.

Although clearly wrong, it is a fact of professional life in the oval ball code that we now take for granted. All things considered, the Fijian performance in a 43-19 defeat to a star-studded Barbarian side was admirable to say the least.

Can you imagine the outrage if Ireland were put in a similar position? Probably not, because it simply wouldn't happen.

But to add fuel to this particular injustice, at the same time in the Middle East the Fijian Sevens squad, under former England Sevens coach Ben Ryan, were lifting the cup after beating South Africa in the Dubai Sevens final.

However, it was the semi-final win over New Zealand (44-0) in the same competition that had the rugby world at large drawing breath.

With a population that's just a fraction of ours and far less financial resources available to them, the South Sea Islanders (Tonga and Samoa too) punch well above their weight.

For the record, our ladies gave it their best shot and at least held their own, but our men flopped.

When will the penny finally drop in the corridors of power? Sevens rugby is a spectacular game and provides invaluable skill and player development. It's time we tapped into that.


Darren Cave did his future prospects at the highest level few favours with his outburst during the week.

It was bad enough suggesting his "face doesn't fit" in the Ireland camp, but to then have a cut at Jamie Heaslip (supposedly in defence of Roger Wilson) was hardly a clever strategy going forward for Cave.

Take it from one who knows, Darren: sometimes you say it best, when you say nothing at all.

Irish Independent

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