Saturday 24 June 2017

Neil Francis: Schmidt's ability to think his way out of trouble can steer Ireland to Grand Slam

With England depleted by injuries and chasing pack well behind, Kiwi can mastermind success

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is targeting success in this year's RBS Six Nations Championship. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is targeting success in this year's RBS Six Nations Championship. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Harry Truman - the US President who decided to use the bomb - spent the remaining years of his term looking for a one-armed chairman of the Federal Reserve so that when he made a statement or a prediction he couldn't then say 'on the other hand'.

I think Ireland will win the championship this year and I'm confident that it will be a Grand Slam. No ifs, buts, maybes . . . or on the other hand.

It may be considered following the herd to go with the Ireland versus England decider in the Aviva, but I expect Ireland to be good this spring. Not because they were good in November but because the best coach in the world is in charge and his teams . . . well he communicates confidence and intelligence to them and they respond with an enthusiastic brand of structured rugby.

Once we find out what the third secret of Fatima is, then we can concentrate on trying to find out the miracle of how Schmidt manages to get all of the players on his team not just to play well but consistently play above themselves for 80 minutes, even the average internationals, and we will have three or four of those in our 23-man squad.

Napoleon, when he was searching for victory, had to pick a new general to fight one of his battles. "I know he is good but is he lucky?" I have made the point before about Schmidt's 'luck' in having all of his best players fit for his Heineken Cup crusades when he was in charge of Leinster. Not only did he manage to have them fit, but he had them pulling at the reins. Form is one thing - having all of your squad available to you, well that is vital. Schmidt ran out of luck in the 2015 World Cup quarter-finals. No Johnny Sexton, no Paul O'Connell, no Seán O'Brien and no Peter O'Mahony. No way!

As far as we know Schmidt has just about everybody on board: no major casualties and a mid-five that are on fire. His front five don't need any Zip firelighters either. If Schmidt can keep even 90pc of his 23-man squad healthy, he will win the championship.

Not much has been said about it but our two toughest games will be the France and England games in Dublin. Over the Christmas period it looked like England's squad was being decimated - their starting pack were falling over like fat labradors racing over a wet kitchen floor.

The Vunipola brothers are both gone with long-term injuries. Chris Robshaw is a career doubt with major shoulder surgery required. Joe Marler is recovering from a broken leg. Manu Tuilagi's groin is gone again. James Haskell, a long-term injury for most of the season so far, got injured on his return. George Kruis (broken cheekbone) and Joe Launchbury (calf) are back but not anywhere near 100pc.

England are in trouble without the Vunipolas and Robshaw. Billy Vunipola is the biggest loss. Whatever else Eddie Jones has done in revolutionising how England play, the game-plan was pretty simple - get the Tongan to take the ball over the gain-line 15 to 20 times per game and you have a good chance of winning. Vunipola's all-round game had taken a quantum leap forward, as had his fitness. Jones has kept quiet about it, mainly because there are no obvious replacements. The 55-times capped Robshaw is also a grievous loss. Despite all the crap he took in the Wales game in the World Cup and the debate about whether he is a six or a seven, the Harlequin has quietly gone about his business and has been England's most consistent player. England have depth, but not enough to cover those two. Unlucky.

France also have the makings of an injury plague with Wesley Fofana the biggest casualty. The French, though, will get by with their personnel. However, it is their soul that they have lost and it doesn't seem to bother them that much.

Their squad is a Clermont-Toulouse composite. You would think there is enough quality there to do some damage, but the Championship table doesn't lie. Fifth in 2016 with a paltry four points, and they should have lost to Ireland and Italy. How has it come to this? A precipitous fall from grace that shows no sign of abating. I am reasonably confident that situation won't change much this year.

Back to our old friend Napoleon - "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." Guy Noves is effectively weaving the same variation on a theme that Marc Lievremont and Philippe Saint-André engaged in. If you need to be reminded where they are going wrong it can be encapsulated in Toulouse's performance against Connacht last Sunday. What universe do we need to be living in when Connacht can go to Toulouse with aspirations of either winning or doing enough to qualify?

Connacht, with a little bit more composure, would have taken Toulouse in the last 20. Toulouse had what every French club side has - a pack of lumbering behemoths and they can go for 50 minutes before more skilful and nimble sides begin to out-think and out-manoeuvre them when the game loosens up. Connacht were fitter than their opponents and should really have manufactured the losing bonus point, if not the win, when they had the chance.

Toulouse, despite having Connacht for size and power, were made to look cumbersome and inflexible when Connacht went at them. This is the way they play rugby at club level and nobody seems to want to change things. When Toulouse travel to Thomond at the end of March, we all know what is going to happen. The French side will be embarrassed and will give up in the second half because they can't match the fitness, the speed or intensity of sides that have surpassed them for skill.

Ireland and England have moved forward in how they play and redoubtable thinker on the game that he is, Noves just doesn't have the smarts or the inclination to match Schmidt or Jones intellectually. Fifteen years ago he would have, but not now.

It is a crying shame that the French are so one-dimensional, so bereft of an idea of how to create space and so lacking in the fundamentals of passing the ball. France will come to the Aviva and cause us a few uneasy moments, but they won't even be able to beat us up anymore. The only thing that would worry me in that match is that we lose one or two to injury.

Elsewhere, it is all about the collective and how coaches imbue responsibility into the body. Scotland could be tricky but you just sense that they will come up short against Ireland. Last season they outplayed us at the Aviva and still lost 35-25. How they play with a coach who has been fired will be telling.

Vern Cotter has had a peculiar Scottish tenure. The SRU and Clermont failed to agree a satisfactory release from the French club when the SRU hired him and Cotter had to spend a season in limbo. In August 2016, the Scots sacked Cotter but he will see out his contract until June 2017, when Gregor Townsend takes over. It was FUBAR to get it wrong at the start - SNAFU to do it again at the back end.

What is Cotter thinking and how does he not convey to his squad that he is out of there in five months? Scotland have enough clever players behind to cause trouble, but their pack don't have the horsepower and Ireland will do enough. Wales without Wazza will have a poor year, but will still get their quota for the Lions tour.

Schmidt's luck cannot hold over five matches, but his capacity and ability to think his way out of trouble will see Ireland through. He might not even need the luck.

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