Saturday 14 December 2019

Tony Ward: Hard to look past Irish midfield partnership of Ringrose and McCloskey for Wales

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It would be easy to describe last weekend's results as two home teams with little pressure on them winning, while the two who needed victories on the road came up short. Easy but unfair.

Technically correct of course but inaccurate in summation. Much closer the mark to describe it as another mixed weekend for Irish teams in Europe. Little room for argument there. We have been spoilt and we know it.

I still maintain there is a cyclical changing of the order. Use the word Galactico in the context of European football and immediately Real Madrid comes to mind. Apply it to rugby and for Real in round ball read Toulouse in oval, possibly Leinster too.

Yet this morning throw a glance at the bottom of Pools 1 and 5 and there sit Toulouse and Leinster.

The beauty of sport, even allowing for investors with more money than sense, is its unpredictability with Chelsea and Roman Abramovich the most obvious case in point.

Toulon through Mourad Boudjellal are enjoying their time at the top but that too has a shelf life.

Of course it's going to necessitate change but nothing - and I mean nothing - says to me that Toulouse, Leinster and even the other provinces will not be competing for European silverware in the years ahead.

In saying that, I fully acknowledge that the financial bar has been raised significantly. Ways and means will be found to compete financially, for the simple and obvious reason they have to.


In Limerick on Saturday before a vociferous home support, that can genuinely claim to be that 16th man, (although very far from capacity) Munster did manage to turn back the clock and let the rugby do the talking.

It wasn't classic fare but it was intense, it was passionate and it was all for one and one for all. It was everything that Stade Jean Bouin was not the week before.

All is still far from perfect in the Munster camp but by their performance against Stade they have made themselves some precious time and space with Treviso (in Europe) and Zebre (in the Pro 12) next up. Time to restore confidence and space to gather some momentum.

It is also an opportunity to reintegrate Donnacha Ryan into the side. His return to full fitness and effect cannot happen quickly enough. Add James Cronin, Ryan and Peter O'Mahony to the unit on duty against Stade and you are back in the forward territory of old.

Tighthead is still an issue, as is the best lock combination, but at least the options are there. Robin Copeland was an out-and-out second row before moving to Cardiff and that is an option I'm sure Anthony Foley will explore.

As regards Ian Keatley I continue to be confused. I still see a very talented footballer fighting to break free. He is his own worst enemy in terms of dropping the head at critical times. I still believe him to be an out-half case worth fighting for, as I suspect does Foley.

In the absence of Andrew Conway, the backline that started against Stade is the most balanced attacking unit available by far. Ronan O'Mahony is a talented winger who will improve with game-time.

Conor Murray is still some way off his best but he knows that. He is still our number one No 9 by far but I would like to see him assert himself even more and box-kick a little less.

Beyond that CJ Stander was again outstanding, and on this must win, must perform occasion, Mike Sherry was immense.

I'll say it again and again that when the tide is flowing the other way, that's when true leaders stand out. Sherry is a replica of Damien Varley who preceded him and Jerry Flannery before that again.

Irish rugby has always been blessed with top-class hookers and here for sure is another. He is unfortunate given the quality in other provinces but should still join Stander, Murray, maybe Ryan and possibly Keith Earls plus Simon Zebo too (both infinitely better seven days on from Paris) in Joe Schmidt's initial Six Nations squad.

That's at least four more than might have been the case a week or so ago.

While for Munster it represents an opportunity to draw breath, for Leo Cullen, Kurt McQuilkin (whose impact is understated), Girvan Dempsey and the rest, more impressive evidence of a corner turned and a new generation emerging.

The young guns were all good against Bath, specifically Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony (that's four of the starting tight five) and Rhys Ruddock (just gone 25). Tracy, Furlong and Molony were particularly outstanding. And so too were Luke McGrath (watch him develop) and Garry Ringrose.

Stuart McCloskey (so much more than a gain-line battering ram) and Ringrose are the form Irish centre pairing in the ongoing absence of Robbie Henshaw through injury, with Luke Marshall not far behind.

It would be a big call and calculated risk to throw both in against the Welsh and yet on the basis "if you're good enough. . ." you can see the temptation. I envy Schmidt not in his call on this one.

On a horses for courses basis the Welsh game might not be the one, and yet in relation to McCloskey the case is proven, while with Ringrose how do you desist from giving obvious class and potential its head? Over to you Joe.

Dave Kearney too was very good in all the extra bits and pieces he does so well against Bath, while Sean Cronin remains for me the best all-round impact hooker after Ireland skipper-in-waiting Rory Best, and by a mile.

I don't know how he dropped from two to three at the World Cup but he's right back to his very, very best. We may not be setting Europe alight, but were I the Ireland head coach I'd be chomping at the bit.

What is the point in Italian rugby?

It is now 16 years since the Italian Federation joined the Five Nations, making it Six, and in cultural terms Rome has been a magnificent addition to the jewel in the northern hemisphere rugby crown.

The late '90s represented a particularly successful time for Italian rugby, and on the back of that the Five Nations became Six.

We all wanted Italian Rugby to succeed and personally I had a close relationship with Rugby Amatori Milano so in a sense I had a vested interest over and above the ordinary.

As the Six Nations 2016 comes into view, and with both professional entities - Treviso and Zebre - performing abysmally as has become the norm, both domestically (Pro 12) and in Europe, the one thing guaranteed is that Italy will finish in a scrap for the wooden spoon, with a single home win again the most realistic target.

Don't get me wrong, the Eternal City and Stadio Olimpico is magic to visit, but in all honesty what is the point in a sport that professes to be ultra-professional and spreading its wings when at club and international levels the Italian presence makes for a non-event?

The beauty of sport is its unpredictability. . . Italian rugby apart.

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