Sport

Friday 17 November 2017

Neil Francis: If Joe Schmidt has to choose 15 Leinster players, so be it

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Exorcise the ghost of November past, put 80 minutes of it in your happy inbox and the last minute -- shred it if you're human, keep it if you have some sado-masochistic tendencies.

Ireland traditionally perform badly the match immediately after they pull off a big performance and expectation chokes their performance

This time there will be no Haka. There will be no sense of an All Black massacre to spur us. There will be no sense of occasion or an atmosphere that is brimming with wide-eyed delirium for 80 of the 81 minutes. The only thing that is the same is that it's a Sunday.

This is Scotland, Haggis, neeps and tatties. A nation soon to be disenfranchised from regular Heineken Cup because their districts compete inconsistently in the Pro12. Glasgow have pulled away and will be their sole representative in next year's Heineken Cup.

Ardour and zeal count less and less for what is important in international and European rugby. They are a spirited lot and will be plucky and competitive all the way through the 80 this Sunday whether or not they are being spanked. Scotland never give up.

The 12-8 loss in Edinburgh last year was Ireland at their worst and even though Ireland fluffed three or four clear chances to score tries, they didn't capitalise and Scotland stayed with them.

Laidlaw got four penalties to reward Scotland's perseverance and Ireland's dominance in the match came to nought because the team had fallen so far away from any recognised path of rugby strategy and it signalled the end of Declan Kidney.

The loss to England in the previous match took its toll and the match in Edinburgh was a chore.

That is what Sunday is about. Scotland are like one of those golden retrievers on the beach -- no matter how far you throw the ball they will run after it, bring it back tongue out and expect you to throw it again until dusk. Sometimes you lose interest. Scotland have this annoying habit of staying with you, even though you might be vastly superior and you should be dominating the game.

If Ireland can bring Scotland to the vet and have them put down humanely, and do so without occasioning any injury to their important players, well then we can get on with the Championship.

Ireland are real contenders, and if they can professionally dispose of Scott Johnson's side and garner some momentum, put flesh on the bones of the patterns that Joe Schmidt wants to impose and pick up a bit of feel good, well then they have a real chance of beating Wales who are undoubtedly the best team in the competition -- and the most disliked.

Wales see their starter against Italy at home as something akin to Ireland's first match. Outwitting the bouncer to get into the dance. Italy will draw some of the sap out of their legs up front, but are far too good behind and if Wales don't score five or six tries there should be a steward's inquiry.

As far as the Championship is concerned, England v France in Paris is not the match which decides the championship, it will be Ireland v Wales in the second round.

The starting Welsh side has ten Test Lions in it. Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Roberts, North, Phillips, Hibbard, Adam Jones, Wynn Jones, Lydiate and Faletau. Justin Tipuric keeps the Lions captain on the bench. If Rhys Priestland and Luke Charteris had been fit they would have travelled with the Lions to Australia too.

This Welsh side has the most balanced and well co-ordinated structure to its line up. They have experience and leadership and they are winners -- paupers at European level, princes at International level. They play a brand of rugby that unsettles Ireland and they will come here fancying their chances.

Warren Gatland will come to town stirring it up and will play the mind games which won't be reciprocated by Joe Schmidt. Scott Johnson too might get lippy this weekend, but Schmidt has experience of dealing with Johnson when the Australian was with the Ospreys and it won't faze Ireland's coach.

Gatland knows that if Wales can beat Ireland in Dublin they will be on a roll. Gatland got a renewed four-year deal from Wales on two fronts -- his success over the last three to four years at international level and for packing the Lions team with Welsh. They will be confident and difficult to beat.

England and France will be sub-par but difficult opponents as usual in London and Paris. Philip Saint-Andre will be dispatched at the end of the season -- how he managed to hang on to the job after finishing last in the Championship last year is beyond explanation. Maybe they have Fianna Fáil-type quangos who keep their men in the job despite the withering ineptitude they demonstrate game in, game out.

England too, if they lose in Paris, will have a coach under pressure. Stuart Lancaster is still living a dream. He has brought structure, discipline and team unity to his squad. He has given them the bones of a game plan but they have no offensive line and that is why he has taken a huge gamble in picking players like Exeter's Jack Nowell, Gloucester's Johnny May and Northampton's Luther Burrell.

Did anyone see those guys do anything when they played against Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup? England, if they have a poor Championship, could go looking for a new coach for their 2015 World Cup. Pressure, pressure!

Pressure too on Joe Schmidt; he has to get his team right. If that means picking 15 Leinster players that fit his game plan, well, so be it.

This game, last year, Ireland had five Leinster players who started -- the 12-8 result was a disaster. Last November Schmidt picked 10 Leinster players against the All Blacks -- nobody complained after the game. Tomorrow he will pick the following team with nine Leinster starters - plus Sexton.

(1-8)Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Paul o'Connell, Devin Toner, Peter O'Mahony, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip; (9-15) Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton, Dave Kearney, Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney.

Good enough to account for Wales and more than good enough to do Scotland, who have picked a strong team and a strong bench. Irrespective of that, let's get Sunday over with first.

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