herald

Friday 15 December 2017

It's a joy to see young players come of age

It would be churlish of me to say I don't like this present rugby landscape. Ireland near the top of the ratings is a very pleasant vista.

But unlike the old Lithuanian saying -- "It is better for your neighbour's horse to be sick than for you to have two horses" -- I don't glory in seeing England in the doldrums.

Make no mistake I want Ireland to wipe the floor with England all the time, and I rejoice when it happens, as I know it has always been a rare vintage.

And I will never hand back this marvellous run of the last decade where Ireland have won more often than ever before. For I know the game is cyclical and we will have dog days again.

Admittedly I don't glory over England's plight for selfish reasons -- this great championship needs England near the top of the tree for it to shine. With France it is the biggest market and if they keep offering up the drivel of this season sponsors will stay away in their droves.

The championship hasn't been at its best this year for a variety of reasons. The lawmakers have a lot to sort out and they need to do it quickly.

I was a bit nervous about Wales firing for 80 minutes but any doubts I had were very comfortably and very efficiently blown away. It has taken Ireland a while to get going in this championship; maybe the legacy of winning last year followed by an attritional Lions Tour had knocked them off their stride a little.

But last Saturday was a closer reflection of what this team is capable of. I felt they idled for most the game and only put on a spurt when a chance beckoned. They looked calm and in control for the whole game. Wales on the other hand looked stressed out.

Playing against a hungry defence seemed to break their hearts. With so few opportunities they looked rudderless and awkward.

It was a return to form for some of our players and the emergence of a rare talent. O'Connell had his best game of the season and his fellow Young Munster man Keith Earls just brimmed with confidence.

It is a huge pleasure to watch a young man grow in confidence before your eyes. He is maturing on the field and although he is not the finished article by a long way he has that spark of someone special. There is a buzz in the ground when he touches the ball and it is a joy to watch.

The joy of Earls is in stark contrast to the morose body language of the English team. You would imagine that there is very little craic in that team room.

Devoid of football ability in their backline they are relying solely on a type of drudgery, slow rugby at its worst. It is almost as if they are collecting stats, x number of rucks, y number of passes. It is awful to watch and they are coming in for huge criticism in England.

Even though they drew with the lacklustre England, Scotland have fared far better in the perception stakes. They too are short on quality in their backline but they have no shortage of passion or honesty. They have an excellent backrow which will make for an epic confrontation tomorrow, but the only luck Scotland have had this year is of the bad variety.

They are not as bad as their results would show but I fear this game is a game too far for them. Shorn of players through injury no amount of good luck will save them tomorrow.



Exasperated

Which brings us to Italy. I have had huge sympathy every time I see Nick Mallett been interviewed. He looks exasperated by his task. Thankfully we are seeing a couple of Italian teams in the Magners League because these players need to come to terms with playing a higher level of rugby. Their 10 years in the competition has been chastening to say the least.

And finally to France. The best team by far this season they seem to have found the perfect marriage, between the France of old with a harsh pragmatic forward pack, which has proved irresistible to watch.

For all his maniacal tinkering Lievremont has finally come to a fantastic combination. He sacrificed a couple of championships for it and it is doubtful that any other country would have given him the latitude to do so but the results are beginning to show.

So wins I think for Wales, France and Ireland tomorrow. A fifth Triple Crown would be an incredible achievement. We had a wobble early in the season and yet have come back pretty strong. If we learn our lessons well, this season may prove to be as important as the Grand Slam of last year.

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