Saturday 16 December 2017

Tony Ward: We’re miles off the pace – we need a radical rethink on philosophy and skills

Conor Murray’s box-kicking has been one of the features of Ireland’s recent performances under Joe Schmidt
Conor Murray’s box-kicking has been one of the features of Ireland’s recent performances under Joe Schmidt
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We were deluded to think our caveman rugby would ever beat best southern hemisphere sides

Last Sunday, what we learned is that we are not even close to World Cup-winning standard - and that's taking into account the absence of five key players.

The southern hemisphere's best are a long way ahead of us.

We deluded ourselves with the hope that if we got to a semi-final anything could happen, but did we really believe that?

Yes, an opposition player could be sent off or a couple binned to swing a match our way, but the Aussies, the Kiwis and now the Pumas are playing a different game.

I hesitate at including the Springboks as they still place great emphasis on brute force and European-style route-one rugby.

That said, what would we give to have a back three with the power, the pace, the panache and the cutting edge of Willie le Roux, JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana.

We pride ourselves on the quality and depth of our back three, as in Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, Craig Gilroy, Fergus McFadden et al, but would any of them even threaten Le Roux, Pietersen or Habana for a place in a Springbok side?

In Heyneke Meyer's defence - and I like him as a coach - the scenic journey to the try-line still exists for the Boks.

With hand on heart can we say the same as to how Ireland go about their business?


We pick a team to chase, to compete in the air, to defend; yes of course we can still to a degree create and finish, but if we're brutally honest we use criteria for selection that I don't believe others do.

Allied to the need for a creative midfield combination - which we didn't have in this World Cup - there is a need for a shift in attacking mindset. The talent is coming through the underage system, but there must be a desire to develop the skill-set appropriate to the modern game.

What is required is not nuclear science, just an instruction from the top down to unleash the shackles.

When I played, I could kick the leather off the ball as well as anyone, but my primary instinct was to run.

Different times, different standards, different systems I accept, but if we give the natural talent of the likes of Earls, Zebo, Fitzgerald or Gilroy licence to run, then there is hope of competing with Rugby Championship sides in Japan in four years' time.

I suspect that Joe Schmidt is more frustrated than anyone at having to play a brand of rugby alien to his instinct.

I don't for a minute believe he gets any satisfaction from instructing Conor Murray to hoist so many box-kicks for Bowe or the Kearneys to contest.

Even if successful it is caveman rugby and unfortunately the knock-on effect filters all the way down.

To me, rugby has so much more to offer. Look at the All Blacks.

Julian Savea will probably set a new record for World Cup try-scoring over the next two weekends and he is a class act but it is the pocket dynamo on the other wing who sets my heart thumping that little bit quicker.

Nehe Milner-Skudder is a throwback to the days of yore. As a fan of Welsh wing play over more years than I care to remember here, this guy is the best of Gerald Davies, Ieuan Evans and Shane Williams rolled into one.

Such talent is God-given but it also requires coaching courage to see it through to its full potential. There is no reason why we cannot produce players with that sort of flair and finishing prowess.

I haven't met David Nucifora but the IRFU high performance director, strikes me as a man on a mission to combine the more enlightened methods of the southern hemisphere with the much more conservative ways of the north.

Of course winning is still the bottom line.

Nucifora has already dragged the governing body here into the 21st century when it comes to Sevens rugby and the obvious benefits to be had.

We are taking tentative steps on the bottom rung of the World Rugby Sevens ladder, but without Nucifora, we wouldn't even be there.

We will find out in time whether this World Cup is spreading the rugby gospel to a new audience, but you can be sure that when Sevens makes its Olympic bow next year, the uninitiated will be bowled over.

The need for a radical rethink on philosophy and skill development is with us now and not a moment too soon.

Irish Independent

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