Challenge for Irish teams to live with pace of the game

 

Giving Ireland’s best young players game time at Connacht represents a way forward for Irish rugby

I NOTED Munster’s Tony McGahan has highlighted that “aggression and discipline” will be very important this weekend in facing Northampton. I would like to add another word, particularly with the high-tempo Heineken Cup in mind, and that is pace. When I say pace I imply two things which, with the challenges awaiting our four provinces this weekend, will be crucial. The first is out-and-out A-to-B speed which, having watched Leinster’s Luke Fitzgerald over recent weeks, is a very pleasant commodity. The second is even more important, to compete in the environment; in other words to live with the pace of the game.

With injuries to both Felix Jones and Keith Earls Munster will struggle on the first form of pace which gives the Saints a real chance but Connacht will certainly struggle on both fronts this weekend.

Fullback and winger Andrew Conway will most likely be togging out for Blackrock College RFC against Cork Constitution in Stradbrook in two weeks’ time, which will be a fixture well worth watching. That there is no Ulster Bank League this weekend frees him to play against Esher in the British Irish Cup. Conway has a precious gift, that of pace. But, as Fitzgerald might argue, pace is not always for coaches.

What Conway has in abundance is an ability to utilise his pace at the top levels. He may ask himself how, as the Rugby World Cup Under-20 top try scorer, he could be playing amateur rugby at weekends. No doubt he is but I now ask, with four professional teams playing Heineken Cup rugby, why is this the case? In other words, is team selection in each province reflective of the country’s player quality? I believe not.

Born on July 11th, 1990 Conway is exactly 12 months and six days younger than Wallaby “legend” James O’Connor. They are also very similar in physique and style but with one key difference. O’Connor has 36 international caps. Why then is Conway playing in Stradbrook miles away from an international cap? He is not alone: Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan and Seán Cronin are high-profile ex-Connacht players attached now to other provinces but may only have bit roles with them. I notice the Irish Under-20 RWC captain Niall Annett is on the bench for Ulster Ravens to face Doncaster in that very same British Irish Cup, making him the fourth-choice hooker in Ulster. Why? And why not first choice in Connacht?

Hence Carr, top try scorer in the Magners League two out of the last three seasons, and Conway, the RWC Under20 top try scorer this year, are possible sixth- and seventh-choice back three players in Leinster. Connacht’s underage systems under Nigel Carolan are flying, providing 15 players to this year’s under-20 trials with Munster less than half that number. There has been doubt over Ireland’s participation in the Under-20 RWC where these Connacht boys could get accustomed to the pace of the big boys. Kill it and you kill the education curve of Carolan’s work. But kill it and allow unfettered movement of players into the provincial club teams of Munster, Leinster and Ulster and you will create a massive imbalance and a very poor use of precious resources.

The solution is an immediate change in the culture which exists between the provinces that can, not just allow or facilitate temporary loans/transfers of players, but more importantly encourage the players themselves to want to play at the highest level while remaining in Ireland. Connacht still represents an unbelievable avenue for the above players who, barring injury, are unlikely to start in their chosen provinces. Of course they may retort that one should aim for the stars and so they should but they must be led to understand it is not a retrograde step to play rugby every week in the PRO 12 and, in this season’s case, in the Heineken Cup for Connacht.

I’m drawn by the Government’s approach to the banks this week to “encourage” them to pass on the interest rates to the very customers that have bailed them out. The Government were mainly sent packing. Have the IRFU actually teased out the loan concept that would afford Connacht and more importantly Irish rugby a real succession plan?

Yes these players were important for Leinster’s negotiation of early Pro 12 matches during the RWC but now Carr could be back in Connacht as too Hagan and possibly Cronin, along with Annett and many more. For their part Connacht have to provide a proper vehicle for that ambition which no doubt Eric Elwood is desperate for. He will understand more than any the value of playing at the highest level possible and the loan system represents that outcome.

Tonight as Connacht run out at the Stoop pace will be their greatest enemy. The pity remains that Conway and Carr alone would transform Connacht’s potential; for Connacht are a set-piece team that opposition will target in one way. With all things going to plan against Cardiff in the opening half in the Sportsground a couple of weeks ago Cardiff simply upped the pace through a rush defence and Connacht’s skill set crumbled. For four minutes Connacht were clueless, rudderless and paceless. Passes that went to hand in the first half were intercepted in the second where all and sundry ran to the point of the ball.

Munster’s defence was very impressive last week against Leinster and their set-piece was pretty good also. However French referee Pascal Gauzere slowed the pace with his whistle. Ben Foden and co will want to up it. Munster are very vulnerable tomorrow. Leinster away to Montpellier without Brian O’Driscoll and Nathan Hynes are also vulnerable, and Clermont in Ravenhill will test Ulster like no other side can. It could be a rough weekend for Irish rugby but my eyes will be on the Stoop. Pace or no pace, come on Connacht!

PS. I have many memories from Mary McAleese’s tenure at Áras an Uachtaráin. Such as the dignity she maintained as I stuttered and stammered over her handover “as Gaeilge” with 29 2nd Cavalry Squadron motorbikes behind me! I had met her brother Phelim, a cadet school instructor in the inner square of the Military College way back in 1991, not pretty so maybe she felt sorry for me!

My favourite memory was from a word of “warning” mid RWC 2007 when Ireland were struggling severely. On arrival to Dublin Airport as Officer Commanding her Escort of Honour I requested permission to dismiss her Escort. The pearls of wisdom she gave to me in her reply standing on the apron will forever stay with me. Travel safe Mary and keep her between the ditches; you’re pure class.