Thursday 17 October 2019

Tony Ward: I make no apologies for comparing Stuart McCloskey to Sonny Bill Williams

Scarlets victory shows that Kiss charges are on right track despite recent upheavals

Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey has added an ability to offload in the tackle beyond the defensive line. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey has added an ability to offload in the tackle beyond the defensive line. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

A good start is half the battle they say and the Irish sides in the Guinness PRO14 have had an encouraging opening spell. With three rounds gone, just four teams remain unbeaten and three of them are Irish. In Conference A, Munster lead the way by a point over Glasgow and these two will go head to head at Scotstoun on Friday. In Conference B, it's Leinster and Ulster setting the pace in that order with three wins apiece ahead of champions Scarlets.

I have always held a soft spot for Ulster Rugby even when they were beating the bej**sus out of us in the 1980s. I have never agreed with the theory which holds that an Irish team can only be a winning team when it has a significant Ulster presence. However, there is no doubt an Irish team is better for a strong Ulster presence - once that presence is earned.

Much too often in recent years they have flattered to deceive so we'll reserve sweeping statements for now. On Friday, though, at the magnificent Kingspan, Les Kiss's charges delivered the appropriate performance in honour of Nevin Spence. It is hard to believe we are five years on since Nevin's tragic passing.

To deliver the type of winning performance against the opposition they did and in the manner they did with what is effectively a newly-assembled squad short of some key components made for a critical moment in this group's evolution.

I don't want to put the hex on them because it is still very early days but there is a hard forward edge emerging through Jono Gibbes and Aaron Dundon.


In beating the reigning champions they did so with a return to rugby basics when digging deep for a precious win. Bear in mind that in John Cooney and Christian Lealiifano (the latter until early in the new year at least) they have a new half-back engine replacing Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson at the hub of the team. Both have been a revelation thus far, particularly Cooney given the window of opportunity this move to Belfast now represents.

But the real positive coming out of this performance relates to Stuart McCloskey. That McCloskey can breach the gainline is self-evident at this stage but what he is clearly adding to his game is an ability to offload in the tackle beyond the defensive line. Here too we'll not be over-lavish in our assessment but certainly the parallel vision of Sonny Bill Williams was going through my mind as I watched his octopus-like levers in action.

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Robbie Henshaw brings different qualities to the inside centre position for Leinster and Ireland and he is deservedly in possession of the No 12 shirt but, as McCloskey went through his man of the match-winning motions against the Scarlets, I couldn't but help think of Garry Ringrose coming from pace at full tilt whether on an inward angle or arc onto a McCloskey offload beyond the attempted tackle. Rest assured that element of Friday night's win will not have escaped Joe Schmidt's attention.

McCloskey is a big unit but he is more than just a ball-carrying gain-line basher; there is a finesse to his game that could be developed even further still. And I make no apologies for drawing definite comparison with Sonny Bill at a similar stage of development.

As it happens, the same SBW was a mere passenger on Saturday as the New Zealand All Blacks put together one of their most complete squad performances and greatest wins ever against South Africa.

The final 57-0 scoreline over their greatest rival was every bit a reflection of what had gone before. Steve Hansen is in many ways the master of the understatement but in describing the All Black philosophy after the near-perfect performance as "winning set-piece ball and going forward, being strong on defence but more than anything in searching for space and in finding that space through kicking or running there".

It might sound overly simplistic but that in essence is what rugby is about, whether with the minis or at the highest level. He elaborated further when saying: "We're an attacking rugby team no matter who we play. The players make adjustments based on what they see in front of them."

I would urge every coach at every rugby level everywhere to take these wonderful words of wisdom and have them ingrained on the brain to be passed on to others under their coaching tutelage because what we witnessed in Wellington was quite simply a masterclass of attacking rugby. It showed that busy-bee little 'uns - specifically Damian McKenzie and Nehe Milner-Skudder - have as big a role to play in the modern game as the ultra-heavyweights of this claustrophobic, kick-obsessed world outside of New Zealand.

Attacking bodies and not space is still a northern hemisphere obsession and the Lions (the best of four fully-fledged professional countries) drawing a Test series with the All Blacks doesn't justify this still-misplaced obsession (there's that word twice in the one sentence) one iota.

There is a very definite place for a strong player such as McCloskey in working towards the goal of Ireland challenging New Zealand in Japan 2017. And so too for the busy bees.

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