Wednesday 18 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'The process of selecting mediocre imports over Irish players has to stop'

South African-born Jean Kleyn has been selected for Ireland's World Cup squad ahead of Devin Toner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
South African-born Jean Kleyn has been selected for Ireland's World Cup squad ahead of Devin Toner. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

After the events in Twickenham recently I thought to myself 'Jeez I could play in my fourth World Cup here.'

A little bit of Hollywood magic and I could get there. So I borrowed Michael J Fox's DeLorean and transported myself back in time to when I was 25 and then went back to the future as a 25-year-old and presented myself for selection to the Irish squad in Carton House. 

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Joe Schmidt interviewed me and asked me what I could do for the team.

Seeing as I was primarily a lineout-ball winner there was no real requirement for one of those anymore.

Skill, timing, ability in the air, athleticism and the gift of being able to beat your opponent to the jump – all that crap is gone.

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Joe Schmidt, pictured, wants to see improvements from Munster’s Jean Kleyn (Donall Farmer/PA)

Sure they can throw openside flankers into the air and make them look like Michael Jordan. Air Shane Jennings.

It's all very simple now – systems, pods, lateral timing, synchronised movement, hoist your man into the air where their jumpers aren't and a conveyor belt of quality ball will follow. 

It's so simple that you should win practically 100 per cent of your ball all of the time. I couldn't possibly add any value here. No point in suggesting anything new here or a common-sense policy, the team have lineouts sussed at the moment.

I would have to change tack in the interview if I am to get selected.

Me: "I am an enforcer Joe."

Joe: "A Dirty Harry, are you feeling lucky today Punk kind of enforcer?" asked the headmaster.

Me: "Yeah, I am a big unit and anyone messes with me or my team-mates, then, you know I enforce things."

Joe: "There are 27 TV cameras at a Test match these days Neil. You can't even shape to throw a punch. Anyway we have an enforcer already."

Me: "Yes I saw Jean Kleyn do lots of enforcing last Saturday. I'm not sure if his English opponents got around to appreciating the South African's enforcement or anybody else for that matter."

I watched the business end of the domestic season with interest back in April and May. 

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Neil Francis beating Scotland’s John Jeffries to the ball in the Five Nations of 1991

Munster's loss to Leinster (24-9) in the PRO14 semi-final, Munster's loss to Sarries in the Champions Cup semi-final (32-16), Munster's PRO14 quarter-final (15-13) 'win' over Treviso at Thomond.

The whole country knew Kleyn would become eligible to play for Ireland during the summer – how about some credible performances to rubber-stamp the credentials?

In that Benetton game I saw Marco Lazzaroni and Federico Ruzza – not even mapped for Italy – but the second-choice locks for Treviso rule the roost that day.

The question you had to ask was not whether the South African was Test standard but whether he was PRO14 standard.

When Munster got to the knockout stages last season they needed big performances – especially from their pack. Kleyn was nowhere to be seen.

He now inexplicably holds two Irish caps.

In Test rugby power is at a premium. Kleyn was much bigger than Maro Itoje but the difference in quality of contribution was astonishing.

Size is of very little value unless it is underpinned with industry – talent and ability are I guess important too.

Enforcement? I looked at South Africa's squad announcement during the week.

Our likely quarter-final opponents in the RWC19 quarter-final had Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert, Pieter Steph du Toit, Lood de Jager and RG Snyman.

All five are genuine powerhouses and all have made significant contributions to South Africa's rugby championship win this season.

In that draw against the All Blacks in Wellington when Snyman came on in the last quarter he hit Brodie Retallick so hard at one ruck (legally) that the All Black lock dislocated his shoulder while falling out of the ruck.

That's enforcement! Retallick could never be described as a patsy.

If Kleyn was still playing in his native South Africa would he be mapped in the top 20 second rows in the country?

Yet he is fast-tracked for no obvious reason to our national side.

It seems like it is one of those internet service providers who offer great deals to potential new customers but if you already are an existing customer – standard rates for you me old son!

Already Ultan Dillane has been ditched from the squad. Dillane might not be the type of player that Schmidt typically wants.

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Ultan Dillane has been ditched from the Ireland squad. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

A guy who plays the prescriptive colour by numbers and knows where he is supposed be and what his coach wants him to do in any given situation in the field but he is a better rugby player than Kleyn and less importantly it seems, he is Irish.

I think that for imports to get into the national side they should be 20-25 per cent better than their immediate indigenous rival. 

Tadhg Beirne is an infinitely superior player to Kleyn but it seems that the choice for the plane ticket is down to him and Kleyn.

Who is 25 per cent better than who here?

Meanwhile, we are told of Kleyn's ability as a tight-head second row by people who have never been in a scrum in their lives.

I packed down on the tight-head side of the scrum for most of my international career and I say that being a big lump doesn't mean you are a good scrummager – technique, athleticism and dynamism trump size every time.

Ireland had three scrums last against England. 

You could conceivably make a case for James Lowe when his residency comes through, but not for Kleyn who is not that much more productive than Quinn Roux.

Meanwhile, we could take the DeLorean forward to a pub somewhere in Bloemfontein in South Africa on Sunday October 20 next where we meet up with Richardt Strauss capped by Ireland but living back in South Africa – who is he cheering for?

This crap has to stop.

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