Friday 20 April 2018

Neil Francis: Comedy of errors is no laughing matter for France

31 March 2018; Andrew Conway of Munster beats the tackle of Francois Trinh-Duc of RC Toulon on the way to scoring his side's second try during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Munster and RC Toulon at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
31 March 2018; Andrew Conway of Munster beats the tackle of Francois Trinh-Duc of RC Toulon on the way to scoring his side's second try during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Munster and RC Toulon at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There have been some giddy finishes in the last couple of months — and the dénouement last Saturday in Thomond Park was certainly up there — but the crème de la menthe was the Keystone Cop spectacular in Paris during the Six Nations.

Not Johnny’s drop goal, though. No, it was the France v England game, a match of irreproachable mediocrity. Le crunch? Anyone who thinks so is out to lunch. The French had done more than enough to win the game, but cheese-eating surrender monkeys that they are, they deigned to give Les Rosbifs not one, but two extra chances to win the bloody thing.

The clock is 90 seconds into red and England have a lineout five metres from the French line with the ball in Luke Cowan-Dickie’s hands. The world has had to battle Ebola, SARS, Smallpox and H5N1, but whatever you do, don’t develop Cowan-Dickie, it’s deadly. With the championship on the line, the England replacement hooker badly overthrows his jumpers and the ball goes over the back of the line out straight into the hands of Lionel Beauxis.

The clock is now two minutes into red and the match is over. All the French have to do is clear the ball out of play. Malheureusement, the ball is in the hands of someone who is literally capable of doing anything. Geography and distance are not an issue here. The closest point directly out of play is the way to go. That means turning around and kicking the ball dead over his own goal line. Instead, Beauxis attempts a hurried agricultural hoof as far as he can, in the general direction of the right-hand touchline. It doesn’t go out.

Waiting for it there is England’s stand-out player, Elliot Daly, who funnily enough wasn’t hugely affected by the Lions player burn-out. Daly is a skillful, intelligent player and soon enough England — from an exhausting period of play — get to within one metre of the French line where Monsieur Bird Flu, Luke Cowan-Dickie, knocks the ball on under their posts. The whistle goes and the French celebrate, Beauxis a little bit sheepishly.

In 2010, Stade Francais played Bath in the Heineken Cup. As the half was closing, Beauxis had a clearance kick to make and as the ball was passed back to him he tried to volley it on the full to touch. He completely missed the kick, Bath scored a try.

Eight years later, and after a six-year absence, Beauxis was inexplicably picked by Jacques Brunel to play for France against Scotland. After picking Matthieu Jalibert — a child — to play against Ireland, the boy didn’t last the first quarter and his replacement, Anthony Belleau, was all at sea as well. Pick an experienced head was Brunel’s thinking and pick an experienced back-up too. Francois Trinh-Duc got the bench job after another extended absence.

Beauxis was awful against Italy and so Trinh-Duc got the start against England with Beauxis on the bench. Both are in their early 30s and should know what they are doing. Trinh-Duc’s performance against England began to fray at the edges and Beauxis was brought in to guarantee the victory — for England.

Trinh-Duc started the final match away to Wales and had a shocker. He missed a penalty kick to touch for a lineout maul just as France were getting a bit of traction in the game. Trinh-Duc missed an easy penalty late on and you could see Brunel’s dilemma — if he brought on Beauxis, he could have been even worse. Brunel had gone for experience but it was now a choice between Beany and Barney.

The illegitimacy of their sporting DNA told you that at the vital moment both of them would doubt themselves and cost their team. France lost 14-13 in Cardiff.

Fast-forward to the European quarter-final and Trinh-Duc finds himself on as a replacement for Belleau. This is Thomond Park, this is not his stage

. . . how do we put it, Francois descends to the big occasion.

The French out-half had a few bright moments and managed to work Chris Ashton over through Mathieu Bastareaud from about halfway. Ashton showed enough aptitude not to effect his trademark swallow dive, conscious of the fact that there could have been a lynch mob waiting for him.

The scale of Munster’s comeback, with 14 minutes left and only a six-point deficit to claw back, was overdone. The fact that the men in red left it to the last four minutes only really goes to embellish the legend. Trinh-Duc would leave the door open and sure enough it was done in the same slipshod manner that his form suggested throughout the season.

Toulon did the hard bit in turning Munster over near their own line and then a couple of meaty drives forward made the exit supposedly easier.

If you care to have a look at Trinh-Duc’s clearance kick, the trajectory is a really weird one. The flight of the ball had way too much loft on it and it looped in the air. Given that Toulon knew that Munster would have the throw-in, it was important I suppose to get distance. More important, though, was to make touch, if not row Z then at least row S. Trinh-Duc had plenty of time to pick his spot and execute properly. I think he mis-hit the ball, and the trajectory supports that theory. His ability to make simple mistakes at key moments when the pressure is on told in this instance.

The kick was so close to the touchline that many wingers would opt to let it go in rather than risk fumbling it into touch and concede the put-in at a crucial juncture.

Andrew Conway’s skill set and his hand-eye co-ordination are better than the average winger. To make sure your boot is one inch on the right side of the touchline takes a second to check, or you can just trust your instinct. To pull the ball cleanly out of the air with your hands to the left of our body is special. To judge the speed and the line of the ball as well and make a catch that was as sure as it was perfect. . . it was one of those ‘I was there to see it’ moments.

Conway was lucky with the next bit of play. If the chaser had been somebody like Liam Williams, Munster’s winger would have been barrelled into touch and lucky to have his head attached to his shoulders.

Fijian wingers are like poodles — everyone in France has one. They look great and they will win best in class on all the showy stuff. Brilliant, pacey, mazy runners and a real threat with ball in hand, but the basics are superfluous. Normally when the ball goes into touch the assistant referee puts his flag in the air. Quite why Josua Tuisova chose to try and mark a quick throw-in when the ball is patently still in play, well it’s the golfing equivalent of driving for show and putting for dough. Make sure of the elementaries! This is Thomond Park, crazy things happen here. Never assume anything. If the flag is not up then that means that the ball is in play. In the crucial phase of the game Tuisova’s attitude and demeanour was as lax as Trinh-Duc’s and it is why they are out of the cup.

Conway, who was extremely unlucky with injury before the Six Nations began, otherwise he would have been part of the Grand Slam-winning squad, took off and showed what a potent force he is in open field.

There were many media platforms which showed Conway’s sensational try at JCT level in that memorable 2007 Cup final match. Conway scored the match-winning try in the last few minutes against St Michael’s, after an incredible weaving run. I was located just 10 metres away from where he dotted the ball down. I remember thinking, ‘That was rather good’.

The 2018 version of his wonder try was an unbelievable effort and hopefully something, injury permitting, which will springboard him to Australia in the summer and Japan in 2019.

Munster will be very difficult to beat in Bordeaux. You just think, do Racing have that sort of tenacity and self-belief? They have a lot of poodles on their roster who take the easy course of action in difficult or pressure moments.

Meanwhile, France travel to New Zealand for a three-match Test series. The Kiwis can put out a third-string side if Mutt and Jeff are on the plane.

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