Friday 17 November 2017

Neil Francis: Adjusting to altitude change holds key to Ireland avoiding a crash-landing in decider

Jamie Heaslip has been the player of the series so far. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip has been the player of the series so far. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

At the 1995 World Cup in South Africa - which is not today or yesterday - I have a vague memory of sitting in the All Black dressing room after playing them at Ellis Park in Jo'burg.

I sat down beside Ian Jones and for whatever reason found even the most menial conversation a difficult task to discharge. I felt light-headed and had a slight ringing in my ears. An hour after the game my heart was still racing - I couldn't sleep that night either.

Well into the third quarter the score was 20-12 to New Zealand. They had not played well for 50-60 minutes despite having Jonah Lomu on the left wing. When the All Blacks gave him the ball, he gave us trouble - real trouble. The last quarter was like running up a hill of pillows.

The All Blacks kept their form and we started playing in slow motion. They scored a try in the final seconds and the unblinking scoreboard doesn't lie - 43-19.

I found the final 20 minutes really tough; any sustained passage of play and you were left barking for oxygen. I would like to state that I have never worn a full body girdle but that is what I can only compare it to. I picked up a minor chest infection, coughing phlegm for weeks after. The burn on the lungs is pretty intense.


I played in all our matches. Japan in Bloemfontein again at altitude and Wales back in Jo'burg again. You don't get used to it - even when you get used to it.

After four weeks of savage training at altitude, we were really fit and due to play France in Kings Park, Durban on a Saturday. The medical advice, local and physiological, was to stay at altitude and fly into Durban on the morning of the game. The benefits to us? As Johnny Francome said about one of his mounts which could last three miles that they could stay longer than the mother-in-law! We would be turbo-charged. The increased red blood cell volume.

I wish I had taken a pint of blood out to have it for when you needed a boost - I think it's called blood doping - never mind.

Instead we went down to Durban four days before the match. We had two super-charged training sessions but on the Friday's Captain's Run in Kings Park, well, nobody could run. The dressing room was so dead that we should have gone onto the pitch in shrouds. The French flew in on the morning of the match and flew back to Pretoria an hour after the game. We were so empty that we didn't even have the energy to feel sorry for ourselves.

That is my experience of playing and training at altitude. Anyone who thinks or says is it not a factor - well I would agree with you if you were right.

South Africa travelled down to Port Elizabeth last Sunday and several hours later Ireland followed them. The South Africans, you would assume, know how and what to do to counter their own topography. Ireland, you would assume, would also know what they were doing. If the advice was to go down to sea level and train there a week before the deciding Test - well then that must be correct. I do hope they are sharp enough for what awaits them.

I watched a documentary about the All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick who played against us in Jo'burg in 1995. There was a memorable moment when the final whistle blew and the realisation that the All Blacks had managed a series win against the Springboks in South Africa. Fitzy is an emotionally understated and reserved sort of guy. The scenes of exuberance and joy from Fitzpatrick, a player who had won everything you could win in the game except a series win in South Africa up to that moment, told you everything about how much it meant.

Watching the Ireland players filter off the paddock last Saturday, you got the impression again that they were too empty to register any sense of disappointment after coming so close to a phenomenal achievement - an achievement that meant so much to somebody like Sean Fitzpatrick.

No point in rehashing the evidence of our eyes. All those missed tackles were oxygen-deprivation and hypoxia-induced errors. The question is will they be able to hold firm and produce the same type of performance they came up with in Cape Town?

The teams are announced this afternoon and I have a funny feeling that Joe Schmidt will pull some more bunnies out of the hat.

I feel that our back-row will have to produce a performance of the ages if Ireland are to win. The game changed last Saturday because Ireland could no longer dominate the collisions and the further on from the 50-minute mark, the more pronounced the South African advantage.

In case you missed it - Jamie Heaslip has been the player of the series so far. It is hard to describe how good he has been all over the park. Ireland have dominated the breakdown and picked up turnovers at a rate of 2.5 to 1.

If our back-row can trump the South African ball-carriers and do it for 80 minutes, then Ireland will win this game. Stander will in all probability start and Ruddock, who had a very effective outing for 60 minutes, will probably get in ahead of a fresh Jordi Murphy - who also had a very productive first Test.


I think Ireland's halves have been far smarter and they can still play on the back foot. South Africa's halves have been pretty average. Surely there is a better scrum-half than Faf de Klerk in the Republic?

I watched Michael Phipps' performance against England last Saturday and his passing was so poor that Australia's backs never got going. De Klerk's passing for somebody who is supposed to be a noted passer is ordinary. Patrick Swayze only got going when the gorillas in front of him got their bash game going in the last 25.

If the South African pack are contained, this guy won't be working any miracles. Coetzee may want to play the recovered Pat Lambie from the start but quotas may dictate that the unimpressive Elton Jantjies starts again. The South African crowd were booing him at half-time only when big holes in the line and a certain amount of passivity came about from Ireland did Jantjies look any good.

The longer any team has with Joe Schmidt (apart from the World Cup) the better they become. I think Ireland have a far smarter coach and their team will be better prepared and can manage their game better.

If Ireland physiologically can limit the effects of going up to altitude and back down again they will win this Saturday.

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