Belfast Telegraph

Irish provinces have had a wake-up call after the Grand Slam high


Reality check: Iain Henderson couldn't inspire Ulster
Reality check: Iain Henderson couldn't inspire Ulster
Munster's Robin Copeland
Lost out: Sam Arnold

By Tony Ward

That was a sobering weekend. But, just as we're not going to lose the run of it with what was achieved the week before in London, neither should we lose the head on the back of what was a disappointing weekend for Irish rugby - and there's little point in pretending otherwise.

Yes, the majority of the Grand Slam-winning squad were enjoying some well deserved R&R but for those who did play it wasn't a Pro14 weekend to live too long in the memory. Credit Munster - courtesy of an incredibly strong scrum - for eventually coming out on top against a free-running Scarlets side that attempted a repeat of what they delivered in the Aviva final last May.

However, for Ulster, Leinster and Connacht, it was a shocker and nothing short. For Ulster - and they did have Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson back on board - it was yet another dismal return against Cardiff.

For Connacht it was self-destruction against Edinburgh as they were still the better of two very average units on the night.

And however uncharacteristic the Leinster performance against Ospreys, it marks everyone's card as to the critical task in reintegration given what lies ahead against Saracens.

The physical re-imposition in training is the easy part - it's getting the individual and collective mindset down from the Grand Slam high and working it back up somewhere, anywhere close to what it was when Round Six in Europe reached its crescendo back in January.

A fortnight on from their respective matches against Top 14 opposition in Montpellier, Castres and Oyonnax and I would have had Leinster, Munster and Connacht red hot to take out Saracens, Toulon and Gloucester in the quarter-finals of their respective competitions but now there is in addition a massive psychological battle to be won.

Of course, Leo Cullen, Johann van Graan, Kieran Keane and their respective coaching teams would have bought into the Six Nations achievement not least for their provincial players involved but equally they would have been only too well aware of the challenge in getting the balance between Grand Slam celebration and EPCR aspiration.

With respect to the new Pro14 and everything it entails (and personally, as with many in the southern hemisphere, I hate the newly-imposed Conference system) this weekend represents the biggest in the Irish professional domestic season thus far.

Grand Slam rugby deciders and European rugby quarter-finals just a fortnight apart might as well be from different planets. There is no correlation whatsoever.

Think about it. How often in the past have we seen our international elite return from disappointment in the Six Nations window and indeed the autumn internationals, too, and resurrect themselves whether wearing white, blue, green or red within their provincial confines? Point being this is a dangerous week for Irish rugby and specifically for the coaches charged with getting the reintegration right. I envy them not in their task.

Joe Schmidt's outstanding success has, in a perverse sort of way, added enormously to the intricacies of returning to 'normal' life at bread and butter level. The 'sold out' signs in the Aviva, in Thomond Park and in the Sportsground ought to bring a sense of urgent reality to those so privileged to have been part of that unprecedented journey at the highest level.

To be fair to Munster they extricated themselves from a nightmare start in Limerick to deservedly take the points against the Scarlets in the end. Early on they were particularly poor with the tactical kicking indiscriminate and loose. Had they put in place a plan to bamboozle the Welsh by playing to their undoubted running strengths, they couldn't have done it any better! It was that bad.

It could be described as something of a scruffy win in the end but the set-piece - and scrum in particular - turned it around. Credit, too, to the departing Robin Copeland for another CJ Stander-type performance. I am at a loss here as I see in Copeland a dynamic Tadhg Beirne-type player that Munster can ill-afford to lose, irrespective of the back-row strength in reserve and, yes, apart from Stander and Peter O'Mahony, I do appreciate the value of the injured Chris Cloete and (now) Tommy O'Donnell, plus the obvious potential of Jack O'Donoghue and Conor Oliver.

Copeland has been underused and undervalued for whatever reason down south. Munster's loss will unquestionably prove Connacht's gain. A brilliant piece of work by Willie Ruane, Tim Allnutt and whoever else concerned, particularly given the approaching retirement of John Muldoon.

TMOs should be dropped if their form suffers dip

To err is human, let’s get that clear. Use of the TMO has on balance proved a very positive addition to the game and both rugby codes have got it pretty much nailed, although we could definitely do with a quickening of the process.

In order for that to happen we are relying on ‘the man in the box’ to get it right and here is where I have an issue.

The best of referees may not have been the best of players in their time but the vast majority have played the game and so have at least a feel for it.

I’m not going to tarnish all TMOs with the same critical brush as I know precious few of them and therefore have little if any knowledge as to their rugby-playing background.

That said, in Limerick I was astonished at how the referee let the TMO dictate what could best be described as mad hatter calls. Decisions that sure as hell wouldn’t happen on Nigel Owens’ watch.

Quite how they deduced that James Davies did not deliberately trip Munster’s Sam Arnold on the back of a kick through because the ball bounced off his (Davies’) leg is beyond comprehension and as for the so-called James Cronin double movement, which culminated in a disallowed try, it beggars belief.

I would prefer to be making these comments had these specific incidents worked against Scarlets — lest I am accused of some form of bias.

I couldn’t care less who they are for or against — I just cannot for the life of me comprehend how anyone who has played the game can with such evidence get it so wrong.

I am all for the reviewing process if there is any doubt but it is time for the technical aficionados to be open to being dropped when their form dips and the game suffers.

Belfast Telegraph

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