Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Ward: Six Nations isn't second division standard, but our rugby currently is

Only a more daring approach can maximise our chances at next World Cup in Japan

Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and Jonathan Sexton with the Six Nations trophy at Murrayfield
Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and Jonathan Sexton with the Six Nations trophy at Murrayfield
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It didn't go down to the wire like 1995, 2003 or 2011 but Saturday's World Cup final was still the greatest final of all and the perfect end to the best tournament of the eight that have been played.

From a European perspective, it also showcased once again the gulf in standards between the two hemispheres, with our southern counterparts way ahead of the pack and the All Blacks, of course, in a league of their own.

Michael Cheika was absolutely logical in highlighting the tries either side of half-time and emphasising the practical and psychological impact each of those particular scores had at the time. That they were critical to the overall outcome is undeniably true but equally it would be delusional to suggest that they were the only difference between the sides.

In the opening half one team tried to play constructive rugby and the other tried to frustrate, hoping to hit on the counter by way of a precious turnover in broken play. When you are blessed with skilled technicians at the tackle area with the wherewithal of Michael Hooper, David Pocock and Scott Fardy, it is a hugely sensible plan of action.

But enough to win a World Cup against the best team in the tournament's history? No, and as a neutral observer who wants the game globally to go the same route as the champion nation, thank God for that.

By New Zealand emerging victors in the manner they did, rugby was the winner at Twickenham on Saturday. Give me the All Black way every time. And as for this nonsense about showing too much respect by way of the term 'All Black', give me a break.

Advantage

By all means question the haka and the psychological advantage it gives them in the moments leading up to kick-off, but when it comes to playing winning rugby in the best way it is New Zealand, and specifically their All Blacks, who set the standard.

The Wallabies did everything they could possibly do in rifling possession at the breakdown with all three - Fardy, Hooper and Pocock - getting their hands on ball they had no right to in that opening 40.

We felt if they could succeed in that objective then all pre-match bets were off. Oh, we of little faith. This is New Zealand, the greatest collective in All Black history, who whenever there is a need find a way. Just mention Ryan Crotty, Aviva Stadium, 2013, and you get the drift.

In the All Blacks book there is no fat lady. They win any which way but specifically through 80 minutes of relentless effort allied of course to no little skill.

And while the opening try courtesy of Nehe Milner-Skudder (the latest superstar) came on the stroke of half-time, what I was watching for the previous 39 minutes was a rising tide of momentum as they jammed, bashed and probed with relentless intensity.

That in itself is a collective skill based on individual ability but also belief. And it's proof positive of the mantra so often peddled of giving all for the All Black jersey borrowed for that particular match.

It's one thing emptying yourself of gas, quite another combining that with every ounce of skill you have to give. That is what it takes to be an All Black. In naming their Team of the Tournament, IRPA and World Cup Rugby had four Kiwi backs and that excludes Ma'a Nonu who, for me, is a different class. Not one New Zealand forward was deemed worthy. Another argument for another day but was there a better or more effective forward unit throughout this World Cup?

Ireland need to replicate New Zealand's daring approach but, in advocating this, I'm not suggesting the abandonment of ways that served us well in the past. Black blood runs through Joe Schmidt. He gets it better than any of us here for the simple reason he was reared on what it is that makes New Zealand rugby great. He knows we are so far off the pace being set in his native land right now. Of course I want us to win three Six Nations titles in a row but if the alternative is a more appropriate brand of creative rugby geared towards Japan in 2019 then count me in.

We need to speculate if we are to accumulate and it's not as if the raw material isn't there. Joe knows that too given his close association with underage rugby through his previous profession and that of his son Tim while playing with Terenure and Leinster Schools in more recent times.

It is a big jump and even bigger leap of faith if we are change the kick-and-chase habits that have become ingrained.

Apparently, William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran or so the story goes. It doesn't record the kick and chase.

Let me emphasise again that we do not need to change the habits of a lifetime but we do need to give our coaching management, and 'we' here refers to the IRFU and specifically its National Team Review Group, the licence to develop a strategy appropriate to winning either side of the zero line.

The Six Nations is not second division to the Rugby Championship but the way we go about our rugby at this point in time is - and, irrespective of the finale to this year's tournament, I still don't get the opposition to the bonus-point system that operates everywhere else.

Finally, I thought Dan Carter was majestic at Twickenham and in the middle of that second half he was the biggest single difference in steering the All Blacks back on course when the margin was reduced to four.

He was a very worthy man of the match but didn't deserve to be named World Player of the Year.

This has been David Pocock's year but, as in 2009 when for some reason, and it was decided by former players I might add, Richie McCaw got the World Player gong ahead of Brian O'Driscoll at a time and in a season when O'Driscoll was at his absolute zenith, Pocock didn't get the top award that should have been his.

Irish Independent

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