Saturday 10 December 2016

Neil Francis: Avoid coughing up cheap scores and impossible may be possible

Published 17/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland players, from left, Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw and Donnacha Ryan celebrate victory after the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago, USA. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland players, from left, Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw and Donnacha Ryan celebrate victory after the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago, USA. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

I felt that Nathan Hughes' thoughts about representing England earlier in the week were a revelation. Hughes replaced Billy Vunipola in the second half at Twickenham against the Boks. The fact that one South Sea Islander is replacing another South Sea Islander and both are representing England - well, it's just semantics, isn't it? Who cares that Hughes - a Fijian - will be playing against Fiji this Saturday for England.

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Hughes spoke his mind after his first cap. "I would love for Fiji to have more resources (money) but it is the way it is. They have to deal with it and live on whatever they have got. That's the decision I made - I play my rugby to support my family and put shelter over their heads. Three years is a long time coming (to satisfy the residency rules) so to run on the field on Saturday to represent the red rose was good."

Why play for Fiji for buttons when you can declare for England and pick up £22,000 per match? It is nearly £100,000 for the autumn series.

You can now play for somebody else's country for the dough - how many Englishmen will be left in the team in 10 years' time? The England Globetrotters versus the French Ramblers - "I will die for the jersey… and the dough as well."

Israel Dagg of New Zealand. Photo: Sportsfile
Israel Dagg of New Zealand. Photo: Sportsfile

The only good thing is that all nationalistic sensibilities and patriotic fervour can now go by the wayside. "Well, yeah we got duffed by Ireland and there are a lot of guys hurting in that dressing room but I suppose we lodged our match fees before the game and we feel an awful lot better now. Yeah of course we will be looking for revenge next year in Dublin - well, actually we couldn't give a shite about next year's match or revenge - just make sure we get paid on time."

I wonder do the Kiwis do revenge? Bloody right they do! Not that often that they get beaten. They will probably have to dust down a few copies of 'An Idiot's Guide to Revenge'. One thing is certain about events in Chicago - it will elicit a response. One of the things that people missed about the match may still not have come home to roost. The scale of the victory!

Everyone seemed to focus on 29 matches and 111 years. Never in our wildest dreams did anyone ever visualise putting 40 points on the double world champions. We would have sold our children for a drab 9-6 victory played on a dreary day for ducks and dyno-rod engineers. The only thing that has come close in recent times was when Germany put seven past Brazil in the 2014 Fifa World Cup.

Forty points! "Maggie Thatcher can you hear me? Your boys took one hell of a beating." The Kiwis have kept a lid on it and took their beating with grace but this was nothing short of a national disgrace in New Zealand.

The All Blacks will be put on the field this Saturday with the implicit and explicit instruction not to lose to the Paddies again. The fact that there are no guarantees that they can achieve this imperative adds gravy to a sporting contest which I am certain will break television viewing records for a rugby match in this country.

Retribution has its own pressures. If you go on the field with the express intention to avenge the Chicago defeat and you can't get any change out of a stubborn and unyielding team who are well-organised and highly motivated, it doesn't take long before, as the Bard put it, "our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt."

Ireland will be more than awkward opponents and have a real chance of winning this game. There is one thing that is indisputable though and it is this. The All Blacks decide who wins this Test match.

If they play as they can or are let play as they can, there will be only one outcome. It doesn't matter whether we bug their team room at the hotel and find out all their calls and tactics or if we had Peter O'Mahony, Iain Henderson or Seán O'Brien fully fit and playing out of their skins. If New Zealand fire - if they play at over 90pc of their potential - they will beat us.

Joe Schmidt and Simon Zebo share a smile after last week’s historic victory over New Zealand in Chicago Picture: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Simon Zebo share a smile after last week’s historic victory over New Zealand in Chicago Picture: Sportsfile

New Zealand will be more efficient and smarter with their use of the ball and won't make as many errors as they did in Chicago. I have watched the game three times now and I don't believe that New Zealand played as badly as a lot of people are making out. Their halves did not control the game well and their pack looked ordinary when they were going backwards for most of the game.

I'm sure that their first-choice second-rows will make a difference.

Whatever about the individual strengths of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick the real edge they bring is that they complement each other and their experience brings an easy understanding for the rest of the pack to work around.

They are both clever and instinctive players who do the right thing at the right time for their team. Their work rate and impetus carry their team. New Zealand will be more direct up front with them on board.

This game though will be won and lost further afield from the trenches. New Zealand, I feel, will kick a lot more and will be a little smarter as to where they kick the ball. This may not necessarily work for them as one of the things Ireland did very well in Chicago and for the first half in 2013 was hold onto the ball when it was kicked to them. The All Blacks are a patient side without the ball but they frayed a little at the edges as Ireland continually got around or through them while maintaining possession.

Everybody expects that both teams will change their tactics from Chicago. Ireland are dangerous one-off specialists and because of a lot of factors we don't have the luxury of being able to radically change our tactics or the way we play the game.

I would be amazed if Israel Dagg is not chosen on the New Zealand wing but Ireland will not change their kicking policy here. Dagg may play and he is an accomplished fielder and has great positional sense and he will more than shore up the Kiwis on one wing. I suspect Julian Savea or Waisake Naholo will still have to play on the other and we all know what is going to happen here.

Billy Holland celebrates alongside the Ireland squad after last week’s victory over New Zealand. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Holland celebrates alongside the Ireland squad after last week’s victory over New Zealand. Photo: Sportsfile

Ben Smith is one of the first names picked out of every New Zealand selection meeting - everyone realises what an accomplished player he is - but even he wasn't immune from feeling the heat from the air two weeks ago. Ireland will kick accurately and will apply pressure - New Zealand know this and yet might not be able to do anything about it.

New Zealand will be far sharper in how they attack and though Ireland were good without the ball - this game will be a new departure for all of them defensively.

Defence is about concentration, fitness and discipline, particularly when the heat comes on. Andy Farrell has done a good job so far. Saturday's test of his systems decides who wins. If Ireland don't cough up early or cheap scores this will be a very close Test match.

I played against the All Blacks a few times and like most Irish players if you asked them about what it was like losing to the Kiwis they would say it was like asking a lamp post what it thought of dogs.

Chicago was very satisfying - this one is the real test because openly or secretly the public expect Ireland to do it again without any real notion of the degree of difficulty it takes to beat them. Ireland have it within them.

Irish Independent

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