Monday 19 March 2018

Tony Ward: West is best as Irish underline quality

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What a great weekend for Irish rugby. No cups were handed out, no medals presented, indeed our reigning European champions were beaten for the first time in 18 Heineken Cup games, but Leinster were as magnificent in defeat as the other three provinces were in victory.

If Joe Schmidt's side had won – and a draw was the least they deserved – it would have made for our greatest weekend of Heineken Cup rugby ever, with all four participating in the premier event and all four coming home with the spoils.

It's difficult to single one performance out but clearly, Connacht's victory over Biarritz warms the cockles of every fair-minded rugby follower's heart throughout the land. I love what is happening at the Sportsground in what has long been regarded our 'Cinderella' or 'other' province.

There are many obvious reasons for wanting 'Project Connacht' to succeed, but, more than anything, it's the desire it creates and opportunity it presents for a whole new generation of young players to turn the dream of a rugby-playing career into a reality.

By their on-field deeds, and not fancy slogans, Connacht are becoming the team of the people. And with respect to Munster, Celtic and Liverpool, 'The Fields of Athenry' is Connacht's anthem by birthright.

For those who haven't been to the Sportsground for some time, I urge you to go. The development of the ground is an achievement in itself, but much more than that is the growing bond between players and fans on big-match occasions.

Call it the 16th man, that umbilical cord linking both sides of the fence and white line, but the journey taken long ago by Munster – followed since by Leinster and Ulster – is what Connacht Rugby is now undertaking.

As a player, I dreaded going to the Sportsground – not out of fear of losing but because of the bleak, unforgiving setting. Now I look forward to each and every visit. The tradition associated with rugby in the other provinces may not run as deep out west, but it's getting there. Rome wasn't built in a day, but just as beating Harlequins in the inaugural campaign meant so much back in January, so too has the win over Biarritz now.

Ambition rightly extends to repeating the dose at the Parc des Sports Aguilera in three days' time, but even if they were to lose on the road in France, and London after that, providing tournament debutants Zebre are turned over in the final game, a three-from-six return in the pool would represent some achievement at only the second time of asking. Win on Friday and Harlequins will be seeking a switch from the Stoop to across the road at Twickenham such will be the Connacht march on Conor O'Shea, John Kingston and TW2 in less than a month's time!

The groundwork laid by Gerry Kelly, Michael Bradley and Eric Elwood is being built upon now by Elwood himself, alongside Dan McFarland, Billy Millard, Mike Forshaw, Tim Allnutt and, of course, the wider vision of new chief executive Tom Sears.

The voluntary work being done and time given at grassroots level, and yes we're talking about men the calibre of Padraic McGann here, cannot be emphasised enough. Monivea RFC encapsulates the mighty oak tree maturing out of little acorns sown throughout the province.

The work at schools and youths level is paying rich dividends, and the bottom line sees a new generation of underage Connacht youngsters who believe that winning is their right and wearing green in the Sportsground their proud and unequivocal aspiration.

The Professional Game Board, set up at the end of 2010 – including as it does former St Mary's, Connacht and Ireland scrum-half Conor McGuinness – is more than playing its part. Although independent of the Connacht Branch and IRFU, it is accountable to the IRFU Management Committee. Its main brief is the betterment of Connacht rugby and few can argue with its hugely constructive role to date.

On the field, look no further than a list of emerging talent that includes props Denis Buckley and JP Cooney, locks Mick Kearney and Danny Qualter, back-rower Eoin McKeon plus a whole host of talented young backs from Kieran Marmion through Tiernan O'Halloran, Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin to Marist Schools Cup winner Robbie Henshaw. And the common denominator? All born in the 1990s.

But central to integrating these young guys is the mentoring of 'old heads' in the guise of Gavin Duffy, Adrian Flavin, Brett Wilkinson, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Johnny O'Connor and John Muldoon. And for the record just three of that seven (due to an injury crisis) played an active part on Friday.

I sincerely hope recent talk of a possible transfer to Leinster for man of the match McCarthy is just that ... talk. McCarthy is a class act and central to the progress being made at the western province right now. Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr made that move a couple of years back. I'm sure they wish they could turn back time and contemplate that decision again.

Space prevents me making detailed reference to the other three now, other than to say, Leinster: That appetite for success and desire to play for each other is as insatiable as ever. Hard to believe the long extinct 'ladyboy' jibe ever existed.

Munster: They may be well on the road to a new operational era under Rob Penney, but they are still inspired by an old head at No 10, Ronan O'Gara reminding everybody just how much life is left in the old dog yet.

As for Ulster, they continue to deliver the type of total team performance synonymous with Leinster in recent years and a strong suspicion that, under Mark Anscombe, their time has come. Add to that the Munster touch of that bonus-point winning try at the death and all achieved in the demolishment of Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens.

No silverware, but tell me that Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht, and probably in that order (although Leinster and Munster still have it all to do), will not be still in the shake-up come rounds five and six.

For Declan Kidney and his Irish management the lead-in to February 2 and that challenging Six Nations start in Cardiff could hardly be much better. Friday night and the kick-off to last weekend's reverse fixtures can't come quickly enough.

Irish Independent

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