Thursday 29 June 2017

Neil Francis: Ireland need to be a lot more inventive from 10 metres out - that's Joe's job for the summer

CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 10: Joe Schmidt the head coach of Ireland takes part in the pre match warm up prior to kickoff during the Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium on March 10, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 10: Joe Schmidt the head coach of Ireland takes part in the pre match warm up prior to kickoff during the Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at the Principality Stadium on March 10, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It's a pretty thankless task trying to unravel the contradiction that is the French. It is hard to know how you calibrate or cultivate the type of vacuous mediocrity that the French rugby team have meandered into. After eventually getting over the line against a determined Welsh rearguard, you would have thought they had all won the lotto when the final whistle blew - it did blow, didn't it?

The fall from grace is pitiful and rather than a sheepish retreat to the dressing room, the French were exultant, their fans basking in the team's impotence and sterility. Five metres from the Welsh line and it takes 20 minutes to get over it. How has it come to this? I played against France half a dozen times - I used to envy their esprit de corps and inventive brilliance. As Fulton J Sheen said, "jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius."

Now I look at some of the players in the French back field and think some of them need to be watered twice a week.

One of the things that an audit of this Six Nations Championship threw up was that Ireland lacked composure from the 22 inwards. When Ireland got to within striking distance they could not seal the deal. Some teams struggle when they are close in - whether they have seconds left or whether they have 20 minutes. Many teams failed from potential positions of advantage because they either lacked the discipline, the sangfroid or the imagination to get over the line.

In the NFL when the play clock winds down to two minutes, there is an automatic time out and teams in need of points often go to their 'two-minute drill'. Quite often the team needing the points are deep in their own territory and they need to go 80 or 90 metres to get the win. Because of the time pressure everyone is in 'hurry-up mode', there can be no time wasted or inefficient or unproductive plays. The American TV producers very rarely get an ad break into the two-minute window because quite often the sequence of play is unbroken and everyone knows what is going to happen five to ten plays in advance, something the French could not say with certainty. In fact, the French could not even think past one phase of play.

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots is the master of this type of cold-blooded execution. His drive in the final minutes in this year's Super Bowl was sporting nirvana. Everyone just did their job and the score came.

The reason why we were drawn to the flame in Paris was because the French had no idea how to get the ball over the line. That is why it was such compelling viewing. Sometimes it is more difficult to get over the line the closer you get to it. A team's defensive resolve hardens the closer they are pressed onto their own line. Wales were value for money but how they finished this travesty with 15 men on the field is beyond me.

I had said prior to the start of the Championship that the French were no longer able to pass. In the warm-up or in the heat of battle, the quality of some of the passing meant the further it went out the line the greater the embarrassment. The simple mechanics of guiding a ball into a fellow player's hands were beyond them. The amazing thing about the amount of ball that went to ground which was misdirected or fell behind was that France did not knock it on.

The French had a far more powerful scrum, particularly when they fraudulently reintroduced Rabah Slimani back into the fray. But quite often an inferior scrum can hold out against the odds - a crab here, a semi-wheel there, a judicious collapse elsewhere, a fall into a heap because of lack of purchase - you can fake anything these days.

The problem with modern-day scrum battles on the line is that after four or five heaves by the attacking side and the defensive team are on their last, last chance and the scrum collapses again, quite often the referee gives it to the retreating side for some obscure reason. Referees like Wayne Barnes do it all the time. The French would have been aware of his propensity to confound logic and award the scrum penalty the other way for no other reason than thinking, 'I'm awfully clever and I know the rules better than any of you.' The vagaries and nuances of the game, don't you know!

When you are trying to force your way over from a scrum, one of the things that is an impediment is that the referee will call for you to use it, even when the scrum is going forward. I must have been absent from rugby school that day. I still don't know why they sometimes call on you to use it and sometimes they don't.

International packs that have an inferior scrum are clever and good enough to hold out for five, six or seven minutes until the attacking side make a mistake or resort to pick and go from a ball that has come out of the scrum. There is no instruction manual or subtlety in picking and going and at this moment in time the advantage always seems to be with the defenders. It seems to be easier to hold people off rather than score. The French I suppose could be applauded for not making a mistake or turning ball over. You would just think that after 40 or 50 pick and runs they might have got close to scoring.

I'm not sure if any of you saw the Ireland under 20 game or the Leinster Schools Cup final. The two games ended in exactly the same way and it was an object lesson in game management when the clock is in the red and you are going hammer and tongs on the line.

A game cannot end on a penalty - any other stoppage though and the whistle blows. It is therefore imperative that if you are knocking on the door looking for a try that you make sure that you ground the ball and ground it where a referee or TMO can see it. The Ireland under 20s were 14-10 down and Blackrock were 10-3 down, both teams inches from the line with the clock in the red. This is a situation where your best players only should carry the ball. There is a very fine line between going all out and having the discipline and sense and spatial awareness to know that you are not going to make it. The key here is that if you are held up over the line in red time then the game is over. There is a huge responsibility to realise that if you know you are not going to make it, you have to fight your way back and make sure of the recycle.

On both occasions in those matches the referee judged that the ball-carrier was either held up or didn't get the ball down - game over and a very cruel way to end those games. One of the things that teams are instructed to do when a player gets over the line but there might be arms or bodies in the way is to jump into the ruck or tackle immediately afterwards to seal off any viewable angle and make sure the TMO doesn't get a good view after the fact.

Quite how France managed to retain the ball and not get swallowed up going over the line was a matter of dumb luck and I suppose no little skill from the French - who can't score tries but can recycle adeptly. When Damien Chouly got over the French were on their ninth life. France scored a paltry eight tries in five matches, most of them against Italy, and they only scored two more than Italy.

Ireland scored 14 tries but should have scored six or seven more and really do need to be a whole lot more creative and inventive from 10 metres out. That will be Joe's job for the summer.

I chose to highlight the French farce, not because it was a parody of the game, but to highlight again the difference between the Six Nations and SANZA. The degree of difficulty demonstrated by France in getting over the line shows the decline in that country's fortunes and highlights another poor-quality tournament.

Yes, we did beat the All Blacks but they are looking at events in Paris and thinking, 'Wow, didn't the French used to be good?' Meanwhile, their super provinces - Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes - are playing rugby from a different world as they prepare for the Lions.

They can score from anywhere. The green zone is where it's at.

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