Tuesday 20 February 2018

Tony Ward: Kiss of life revives Ulster's form

Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar prepares to put in to a scrum during Ulster’s last-gasp win over Connacht at the Sportsground. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Ulster scrum-half Ruan Pienaar prepares to put in to a scrum during Ulster’s last-gasp win over Connacht at the Sportsground. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Apart from one or two obvious exceptions, Rory Best and Jonathan Sexton coming to mind (although for very different reasons in terms of form), the festive derby element to our season has taken on a different dimension this time around.

Joe Schmidt appreciates more than anybody the need to garner as much information through full-on, no-holds-barred rugby in the inter-provincials before announcing his preliminary squad for the upcoming Six Nations. Final Trials from times past were a charade to be endured when compared to the benefits to be had from the Christmas interpros before packed houses in Thomond and the Sportsground.

At times the quality was average and, of course, the injuries picked up by Keith Earls and Cian Healy are an obvious concern going forward but on balance - though Munster folk might not agree - the positives from the first two of four festive derbies far outweigh the negatives from a Schmidt prerogitive.

Despite the low-scoring I found the Connacht/Ulster clash most intriguing. Injuries have hit all four provinces, probably Connacht most of all, yet the prototype remains the same. There is a vibrancy to the Westerners' rugby under Pat Lam that's full of ambition even if they came nowhere near hitting the same standards that they hit against Munster in Limerick a few short weeks before.

With Les Kiss now firmly in situ Ulster are on a roll. They are the form team here right now and on the balance of the 80 minutes at the Sportsground, most particularly the quality and organisation without the ball, they deserved to take the points even if they left it late to find Nick Williams' match-winning try.

The midfield triumvirate of Paddy Jackson, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall again looked the part and it is around this central axis that almost everything constructive is being built by Ulster. Bear in mind they still have Darren Cave, Stuart Olding and Jared Payne to come back into contention.

Were I in Kiss or Neil Doak's shoes I would be looking to return Payne to his most effective position for Ulster which is full-back. Then and only then will Rob Kearney have genuine opposition, although the versatile Tiernan O'Halloran could also be a contender in the last line.

O'Halloran and Matt Healy are two who are well deserving of inclusion in Schmidt's extended squad, irrespective of the myriad of options available on both flanks. Let us not hear what Healy cannot do and concentrate instead on what he can which is an attacking game built around serious finishing power. We have loads of footballers on the wing but none with Healy's predatory gas.

The problem for Ulster will be if and when Charles Piutau arrives from Wasps. Whither Payne then? A nice problem for team Ulster but not for Irish rugby which begs the question why Piutau and not Stephen Moore? On current form, McCloskey, irrespective of his age, should be right in the mix for selection to face the Welsh.

With 'lightweights' Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll now gone, Jamie Roberts might yet be meeting his physical match in a McCloskey/Robbie Henshaw combination.


And what of Garry Ringrose? He did nothing over and above the ordinary in Limerick other than maximising the advantage of a mismatch in the moment. He fleeced Dave Foley and Jack O'Donoghue for pace before linking with Isa Nacewa for the tone-setting try. I say he did nothing exceptional because that is a fact.

He did what comes natural. Shane Horgan suggested similarities with Luke Fitzgerald. I disagree. Luke's game is built on explosive power and side-stepping ability whereas Ringrose is much more Brennie Mullin than Fitzgerald or indeed O'Driscoll, Blackrock College predecessors all. .

He is a pure athlete who drifts lightly and effortlessly over ground but his real asset which marks him as special in my book is his ability to assess an attacking situation and invariably make the right decision in the moment. That is innate. It comes naturally. He is a drifter and a swerver but can step too.

Is he ready for Test rugby? Not yet in my view but he is certainly ready for extended squad inclusion and let's see where that might lead.

Oh, and just for the record, if a better or more technically gifted goalkicker has come out of the Williamstown School in recent times then I haven't seen him. Ringrose is a beautiful striker of the ball off the tee but of course with Ian Madigan and Sexton carrying that responsibility with such assurance, he can concentrate on other aspects to his development but as another string to his bow his goalkicking ability is not just good but exceptional.

It was great too to see Sean O'Brien back doing what he does best when running at the opposition and breaking the gain line. Much will depend on the type of game Ireland intend to play in the Six Nations as to whether it will be a back-row of CJ Stander at six with O'Brien wearing seven and Jamie Heaslip (still our most complete No 8 by far) in between.

Against that, in the absence of Peter O'Mahony and in search of a more fluid pattern, it would be O'Brien at six with Chris Henry seven leaving Heaslip to share game time with Stander (the latter providing the mid-match impact).

The front-row options are many even in the absence of Mike Ross although injury to loosehead James Cronin (despite another Dave Kilcoyne tour de force) doesn't help.

A second-row minus Paul O'Connell and Iain Henderson is a worrying prospect with the conversion of Rhys Ruddock from back-row to second-row well worth contemplating.

Expect a re-energised preliminary squad from the main man.

Munster take their eye off the scoreboard

That the game has changed beyond recognition is a given. We all accept that change has come with the territory of professionalism. Most if not all is for the better and that we get.

However, yet again on Sunday in Limerick I was bemused at the reluctance to take points freely on offer. Specifically, I am referring to the two penalties in quick succession awarded to Munster just after the break. Having come back from being ten points behind, here was a golden opportunity on either side of the break to even it up if not go ahead.

I haven't heard Anthony Foley's take on CJ Stander's decision to go for the corner but for sure when he was in his playing pomp the now head coach would have been 100pc behind Ronan O'Gara's decision to go for goal in similar circumstances. Not always but almost every time O'Gara shouldered the responsibility and made the definitive decision.

My abiding memory of Munster in the golden years will be of O'Gara picking up a penalty here, a drop goal there, especially at times when the tide was flowing the other way. Winning a rugby match is about translating territory into points. In those critical moments the psychological upper hand shifted from red to blue.

Irish Independent

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