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It will be hard to ignore young centres for Welsh tie: Tony Ward

By Tony Ward

Published 19/01/2016

In the running: Garry Ringrose has impressed for Leinster
In the running: Garry Ringrose has impressed for Leinster

It would be easy to describe it as the two teams with least pressure and home comforts winning and the two with business end aspirations and on the road losing. 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. Toulon, through Mourad Boudjellal, are enjoying their time at the top but that has a shelf life.

Of course it's going to necessitate change but nothing says to me that Toulouse and Leinster and yes the other provinces too 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, Munster did manage to 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 given themselves some precious time and space with Treviso (in Europe) and Zebre (in the PRO12) next up. Time to restore confidence and space to gather some momentum.

It is also an opportunity to reintegrate Donnacha Ryan. 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 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.

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.

Beyond that, CJ Stander was again outstanding and Mike Sherry was immense. I'll say it again and again, it is when the tide is flowing the other way that 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 is another for sure. 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 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, Girvan Dempsey and the rest, more 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 and Rhys Ruddock. Tracy, Furlong and Molony were particularly outstanding. And so too were Luke McGrath and Garry Ringrose.

Ulster's 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 but if you're good enough... you can see the temptation. I envy Schmidt not in his call.

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 class and potential its head? Over to you Joe.

Dave Kearney too was very good against Bath, while Sean Cronin remains for me the best all-round impact hooker after Ireland skipper-in-waiting Rory Best.

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

Belfast Telegraph

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