Saturday 10 December 2016

Neil Francis: What this team lacks most are the sinews of its captain's will

Ireland are heading for a fallow period due to a lack of talent, says Neil Francis

Published 19/02/2012 | 05:00

Ireland' s Jonathan Sexton, left, speaking with team - mate Jamie Heaslip
Ireland' s Jonathan Sexton, left, speaking with team - mate Jamie Heaslip

Well, the FUBAR, SNAFU and GUBU weekend has passed and at this stage it is done to death. The bottom line though is that putting your faith in the hands of the blazers is like sending your dog for a holiday to the taxidermist -- you know what is going to happen sooner or later.

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Imagine if the same bunch of idiots were charged with flying the team home -- another clusterf***, God forbid, of Munich air disaster proportions, although at least Matt Busby had some extravagantly talented teenagers hanging around when half his team were tragically killed. Declan Kidney hasn't got that luxury.

There is a great line in the song Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell and laterly covered by the Counting Crows, 'Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.' A good coach needs a patient wife, a loyal dog, an understanding public and a great captain, but not necessarily in that order.

Kidney's great captain is gone. We miss so many things that are conspicuous by his absence: everything from his game management to his very presence. People questioned his offensive input stating that mostly it was his defensive qualities which we still found remarkable.

While Wales were patiently making their way unhindered up the field in the Aviva everyone else was waiting for someone to put in one, just one, devastating hit to stop the Welsh advance cold. It never happened. O'Driscoll's team-mates are spokes in a wheel, O'Driscoll was the hub; take away the hub and you have a rim with loosened spokes. What this team lacks most are the sinews of O'Driscoll's will.

Paul O'Connell has come in and manfully tried to put his mark on the badge. I stand to be corrected but I don't think O'Connell has won a meaningful game for Ireland as captain. He has done the job for Munster as captain but not Ireland. Ireland was the inferior team in the Aviva, yet it was a match that they should have won. The buck stops with the leader on the field when the game goes down to the wire. A coach can influence a game from 20, 30, 40 minutes out, but at the death it is the on-field leader who takes responsibility if the deal is not closed.

So, different captain, different dynamic. The team is about to go through a fallow period. I chose my words advisedly in the sense that if you thought the term transitional period was more appropriate you would have to have the personnel to go through the transition. I have a sneaking admiration for business managers who use the rule of ten in their sales force. One guy I know used to cut the bottom 10 per cent of his sales force every six months, even if they had been profitable and covered their costs. It was the effect it had on his top earners -- complacency and long lunches were kept to a minimum.

The Roman legions, even after a successful campaign, were decimated. The word is often misused; it meant that the weakest 10 legionnaires in the legion were killed by the perceived stronger men. It meant that you would not be compromised by weaker soldiers in the heat of battle. The effect strengthened the legion -- the weak men were gone and the strong were stronger because they knew what was going to happen if they showed weakness.

On February 5, 2000, Ireland had 50 points put on them by England at Twickenham. The operative definition of the word blitz, I suppose, is appropriate. Ireland showed weakness and so the coach of the day, who else but Wazza, took out the scalpel and transformed the composition of his side. Shane Horgan, Simon Easterby, John Hayes, Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara were brought into the team. Wow, you had to hand it to Gatland, it was on the ballsy side of audacious. We did not know then what we know now about this new quintet.

They were a hugely positive augmentation. The players who survived the cull reacted in the right fashion too. The gamble worked and Ireland beat France in Paris for the first time in yonks.

The term legend is used very loosely in Irish rugby folklore these days, but under the trades descriptions act they all qualify -- but it took a 50-pointer to bring on their introduction.

Maybe I was rash to think last week that a postponement was a good thing and a few deficiencies could be ironed out against a limited Italian side, but then I thought maybe a 40-point thrashing in Paris would be the catalyst for change and I mean change in every sense of the word. Change in personnel, direction, captain, attitude, strategy -- because it has to come. Then I checked the larder. There was only one player who played for the Wolfhounds against the Saxons in Exeter a few weeks

ago who you would gun-against-the-temple pick to play for Ireland. The reason nobody quibbles with the selection of the current side is because we literally have nobody else to pick.

We could come up with one out of the Horgan, Hayes, Easterby, Stringer and O'Gara quintet. Peter O'Mahony arrived by accident. He is on the bench and we could drop Jamie Heaslip, move O'Brien to No 8 and put in O'Mahony on the open side, but that is tinkering.

I look at the Rabo when the 'stars' are away and all I see is Isa Nacewa. Nacewa is not only the best player in Ireland, but in Europe, and when I see him play I look at the other backs and forwards playing with him and against him and wonder why they haven't even come close to catching up with him -- not even mentally.

We could trot out the names of half a dozen bright young things but none of them are remotely ready. That is a worry when you actually assess what should be coming through.

We have nowhere else to go and await two squeaky games against Scotland and Italy, a thrashing in Paris and a shot at redemption in Twickenham.

The coach is under pressure. His team is going nowhere and unfortunately, unlike Matt Busby and Warren Gatland, then and now there is nothing he can do about it.

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