Saturday 17 March 2018

Tony Ward: Williams may be prince of Wales but pointless Test proves cash is king

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's not too long ago that the Welsh Rugby Union were accusing their Irish counterparts of treating the Celtic League with contempt. The WRU were upset (and with a degree of justification) at the prevailing IRFU policy of the time, whereby the Irish provinces -- specifically Munster and Leinster -- were adopting an a la carte approach in terms of team selection towards the bread and butter domestic tournament.

In other words, the Irish weren't taking the Celtic competition as seriously as the Welsh would have liked.

The perception was of Irish teams resting their elite players for the greater challenges of Test matches and the Heineken Cup.

The IRFU were blamed for reduced crowds turning up at Rodney Parade, Stradey Park, St Helens, the Gnoll, Cardiff Arms Park and anywhere else when Welsh regional sides hosted the Irish provinces.

The accusation was that the Irish were not treating their Welsh (and Scottish) rivals with the respect they deserved, by wrapping their international stars in cotton wool.

Bear in mind, this was at a time when the Welsh were still in talks with the English about a full-blown Anglo-Welsh league -- suffice to say trust was, at best, measured on both sides.

There have been 10 'Celtic' competitions completed, with six titles going to Ireland and four to Wales. Ireland's haul includes two of the first three (when criticism was at its most trenchant) and three of the last four.

I mention all this because of what transpired last weekend.

It is barely six weeks since Wales and Australia last played, in the World Cup bronze medal clash. Next June, they meet Down Under in a three-Test series. That's five Tests between the countries in eight months. Words like kill, goose and golden egg certainly come to mind.

Point being, what was Saturday's Millennium Stadium meeting all about? I think we all know the answer to that. The game was outside the Test window, but to hell with the Pro12. There was not too much concern for the knock-on effects of under-strength teams turning up at the RDS or Ravenhill or indeed at the Liberty Stadium or Rodney Parade.

Saturday's Test was a money-making venture aimed at exploiting the post-World Cup feel-good factor surrounding Welsh rugby.

Throw in the Shane Williams element and bingo, Jackpot bells a-ringing! Packing the Millennium Stadium -- which they even manage to do for televised encounters from the other side of the globe, as at the World Cup -- speaks volumes for Welsh rugby passion.

Yet there is real cause for concern when even the Heineken Cup -- the best show on planet earth -- fails to fill the grounds of regions now struggling to make ends meet for domestic fare.

How could it be otherwise, without the stars? Now where did we hear that before? I have no problem with fuelling the professional tank when fair opportunity arises, but please spare us the hypocrisy.

From an Irish perspective it made for a mixed bag of results and performances.

Cardiff were decimated by Welsh call-ups and were crushed at the RDS, with Leinster racking up a half-century of points. Joe Schmidt called it spot on in asking that the result be "kept in context".

Yet Leinster's head coach cannot but have been pleased at the progress being made by his evolving backline, especially the three-quarter line of Fergus McFadden, Eoin O'Malley, Fionn Carr and David Kearney, and out-half Ian Madigan, who is growing in impact and confidence.

Madigan's distribution and game management, irrespective of the opposition, were top notch.

Madigan was No 10 in a Blackrock school backline beaten by Belvedere in the 2005 Senior Cup final -- that 'Rock side included Dave Moore, Vasya Artemiev, Luke Fitzgerald and Niall Morris.

Ian Keatley and Paul O'Donohoe were the opposing half-backs in a triumphant Belvo side that also included O'Malley and Cian Healy, the latter at hooker.

The talent was always there for Madigan and now, with increasing opportunity, he is developing into a top-class pivot.

Ian Humphreys may still blow hot and cold but along with Keatley, Madigan and Niall O'Connor there is out-half life beyond Jonny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara, in all four provinces.

For Connacht it's a time of grave concern and while qualification for the latter stages of the Heineken Cup is a step beyond reality, beating Gloucester at the Sportsground next up is not.

Eight defeats on the bounce, culminating in Friday's home loss to Treviso, reflects a squad leaking confidence and lacking in winning belief.

Ulster got back to winning ways, albeit against a much under-strength Scarlets side at Ravenhill. At the end they got there courtesy of the little and large show.

Scrum-half Paul Marshall was again the catalyst for so much of their best attacking, while flanker Stephen Ferris was simply awesome -- and he pulled off a try-scoring step at pace of which Shane Williams would be proud.

It is a big month for Brian McLaughlin's men but they are armed now with the start they would have wanted, and Friday's victory has opened up a five-point lead over Connacht in the Pro12 and the race for Heineken Cup qualification for 2012.

One suspects that Ruan Pienaar will get the scrum-half nod to face Aironi in Belfast on Friday, but Marshall's form in the Springbok's absence has given McLaughlin substantial food for thought -- and Declan Kidney too.

As for Munster? They suffered a disappointing end to an ongoing feud with the Ospreys, as Tommy Bowe and Co dug deep.

Coach Scott Johnson has swapped style for substance at the Liberty Stadium and it shows.

Just one defeat in a dozen Heineken Cup and Pro12 matches indicates a club on the move. The 'perma-tan' days are gone for sure, but Munster will be disappointed at this missed opportunity to join Leinster at the top of the Pro12 table.

On the plus side, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O'Mahony continue to grow in presence. On the downside, quite apart from the defeat, was the loss to injury of Doug Howlett, whose influence will be sorely missed in the back-to-back clashes with the Scarlets.

Irish Independent

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