independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Bent must shoot straight and carry a loaded gun

For Ireland's sake, let's hope our new prop isn't another chocolate teapot, writes Neil Francis

The hired gun needs to possess two essentials in his game -- he must be able to shoot straight and more importantly his gun must be loaded.

Two years after playing against Brian Smith in the Rugby World Cup 1987 quarter-final in Sydney, I found myself playing with him for Ireland.

He was a brilliant footballer, a consummate professional in an amateur era but, like Paul Dean, he couldn't kick with great effect but my God he could pass and he could see and make gaps. He got the best out of Simon Geoghegan and Jim Staples and gave Brendan Mullin more space than he could dream of. He was good for the team and people reacted positively to his presence and footballing stature.

Did it bother us that Ralph Keyes and Vinnie Cunningham were discommoded by his sudden presence? They were both fine players but this guy would bring a new dimension. The team didn't win much, but they played some very attractive rugby.

Smith had offered himself to Scotland, Wales and England but a deal was done with Ireland. He had no connection with Ireland whatsoever, there was no maternal grandmother from Wexford. He was Australian and his services were for hire while he was studying at Oxford University. The vast majority of the squad were happy to have him and welcomed him.

When his special advisor and svengali Alan Jones spirited him back to Sydney to play for the Balmain Tigers in the ARL, he was gone before anyone knew it and didn't really say goodbye to anyone. That is the gunslinger's code.

Smith was brought straight into the touring side of USA and Canada. He hadn't played for Leinster before he wore green and his introduction came about at levels far removed from playing fields. Accommodations and facilitations were trifling issues acted upon without thought before Smith was handed a parachute.

I liked the guy. I still do. Twenty-two years later can you say that the faith or trust put in him was misplaced? I don't think so now. It was never about the team or the green, it was an open-ended accommodation, self-serving for all parties. It ended when one party decided the arrangement didn't suit and that chapter was over.

This country's governing body and its four rugby provinces have, over the last 10 years or so, invested in the finest collection of chocolate teapots, most of them props. You would suspect that some of the agents, coaches and advisors who closed the sales would at this stage be disregarded. God in his bounty and generosity always created more horse's arses than there are horses to attach them to. The conveyor belt of dodos still rolls, on the say so of the clever or the uninitiated.

Some of them are special projects, Irish-qualified, and some are just stocking fillers. Someday there will be quality control and every import will work out as well as Isa Nacewa. There have been so many turkeys that the next one would require special dispensation.

Michael Bent finished his ITM commitments on October 20, a good thumping by Canterbury, and arrived in this country last week. Like Brian Smith, he will not play for his adopted province before he plays for Ireland. Given our recent history with imports, if it transpires that Bent's Rose of Tralee sister is a better scrummager than Ireland's newest tighthead, heads will have to roll. Bent was summoned out of necessity. Mike Ross is 33 in December, he has morphed into a first-class prop, everything from body shape to work-rate has improved out of all recognition. He is irreplaceable but will have to be replaced within two years. His possible replacement comes out of left field -- a left field which is 18,000km away.

The All Blacks blood their tight forwards early. Tony Woodcock was capped 10 years ago aged 21, Owen Franks was also capped at 21. If you are not on their radar at that age then that means you won't be wearing a silver fern.

Bent is 26, which in European terms is probably the right age to start at international level. If he was really good he would be in the All Blacks squad. He would not even consider his Irish heritage. The All Black dream is over and plan B is an option. It would appear that Bent is a decent all-round prop, not good enough for the All Blacks but plenty good for Ireland.

I rang a number of people Down Under to get a steer on him. Nobody could oblige. Bent comes to these shores and gets straight into the national squad and does so on the say so of whom? It looks like Greg Feek had a big say in his promotion and it is without doubt a gargantuan leap of faith. Someone credible has seen him play first hand on a number of occasions and has been impressed enough to bring him across the world and fast-track him straight into the national side.

Video collages surely can be discounted. Stephen Sykes looked like John Eales in his video montage on YouTube! Bent has played on a

Wellington Hurricanes side with Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Victor Vito, Hosea Gear and Andrew Hore. It becomes apparent pretty quickly if there is a gulf in quality. You have to be a good player to continually play with very good players.

It is important to recognise that Bent's arrival is firstly out of necessity. It has now become apparent that the scrummaging laws at schoolboy level for good or bad mean that Ireland are unable to produce schoolboys who can scrummage properly. Props coming out of school are lost and struggle with players who have played with contested scrums throughout their formative years. We solve the problem by buying BJ Botha and John Afoa from countries whose schoolboys are allowed to scrummage.

We look at Declan Fitzpatrick and Jamie Hagan, who are a long way off being the required standard and wonder is that the best that's coming. Neither look like they can mature or progress. How will the arrival of Michael Bent be received by both? Will it spur them on or send them into reverse? It will most assuredly alert them to the fact that what they are doing is not good enough. The fact the management of the national side are willing to take such a huge gamble on a player that nobody is absolutely sure of sends a signal that indigenous stocks of quality props are at a low level.

Bent, it seems, will get a run against South Africa and/or Argentina. The best scrummaging sides in the world. If he can't scrummage then either of these two teams will expose him ruthlessly. I hope for Ireland's sake he survives and prospers. The pressure is on him straight away. It is important that he has a loaded gun and can shoot straight.

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