Saturday 21 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'Dropping such a loyal and popular character means the Irish team know Schmidt's capable of anything'

Coach risked losing the dressing-room but culling stalwart lock will focus Irish minds

A world of pain: Devin Toner - pictured with Ireland team doctor Dr Ciaran Cosgrave during the Wales match - will be hurting this week. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
A world of pain: Devin Toner - pictured with Ireland team doctor Dr Ciaran Cosgrave during the Wales match - will be hurting this week. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Abject was the perfect word to describe the dressing-room after we had lost yet another World Cup quarter-final - this time to the French in Durban.

Abject because I couldn't even stretch to a third syllable in any word. Apathy and desolation reigned in our little enclave in Kings Park.

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One by one all, the players meandered out of the dressing-room. I had just come from the showers to witness a private little ceremony. Brendan Mullin, a lifelong friend, walked out of the dressing-room and left a pair of new boots in the corner of the room. That was that for him. Right at that moment it meant nothing to me but a few months later Ireland's then-record try-scorer quietly retired from the game and the stark realisation hit me that, after 20 years, we would never tog out together again.

A few days later another thought hit me. After a glittering career he gets to retire after playing in his third World Cup - on his own terms. There would be no one suggesting he had lost a yard of pace or that he was picked despite being past his best.

He avoided the indignities of being dropped. He retired at the top of his game. The fecker!

I would not be so lucky. After a truly dreadful game a season later in Dublin, where we lost 10-16, I got the Ruud Gullit for the first time in my international career. Stick around Frano - we may still need you.

Two weeks later, I watched in a tracksuit from the safety and comfort of the stands as France emasculated Ireland by 45-10. It could have been 70 or 80. I still got blamed for the performance.

After another poor season which was going to end (badly) at Twickenham, I was called aside by management. I had trained in the side in the previous week's camp and it looked like I would be back in.

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"Frano, here is the read - if England pick Martin Bayfield, you are in. If they pick Gareth Archer, then Jeremy Davidson is in."

I sprinted back to the hotel and switched on Teletext (too long to explain!) to see that Martin Johnson would be partnered by Gareth Archer. It was Paddy's weekend - I would be 32 years of age, lifting had been made legal and the young Turk Jeremy Davidson was, at 22 years of age, going to launch himself.

Boris Johnson must have been picking the team - how in Jaysus could they have picked Archer over Bayfield? Worse still, I would have to travel over - just in case. I was selected on the 'A' team to play England 'A' the day before, indignity being heaped on indignity.

All my friends mumbled sympathetic words - I wasn't just dropped, I knew I was gone for good. Oblivion.

There are apparently three strands of leprosy on the planet - there's a fourth type you get the moment you get dropped. The first symptoms are when your team-mates say things like "stay in touch" or "catch you later" when you bump into them.

When you are walking in the desert even the camels steer clear of you.

There is no carriage clock, no retirement dinner, no testimonial, no counselling. 'If you have been a victim of being dropped from your rugby team, please visit our website and get help at www.shaftedbythecoach.com.' When the moment comes, for some, it is only second to dying.

A moment of recognition so for Devin Toner. As shareholders in the team, the public are entitled to be upset for a very popular player. Having your career ended is horrible.

My God, he out-performed for all of the really big games recently. Did a GPS tag in the back of his jersey really decide his fate?

Chicago against the All Blacks while partnering Donnacha Ryan. Bullying the Springboks in that 38-3 win at the Aviva. He played in the Grand Slam game at Twickenham last March and then completely outplayed Brodie Retallick when beating the All Blacks 16-9 at the Aviva in November.

How could such performances be set aside? How could such a body of work be discarded? We probably need to make a distinction here. Coaches can be loyal to their need of you - once that need changes, so does the loyalty.

James Ryan and Iain Henderson are Ireland's first-choice pairing - even though they haven't combusted yet - we expect it to happen in Japan.

Toner, I thought, was our third choice, just ahead of Tadhg Beirne. Jean Kleyn, on a nebulous run of form and a CV skinnier than Twiggy, gets in ahead of one of the most decorated players in Irish rugby history.

This move would be deeply unpopular with the squad and the shareholders (the fans, Joe). Why would he do such a thing? To me, tighthead-side scrummaging or greater physicality at ruck time… yeah!

Marcus Crassus was a great military leader and patron of Julius Caesar. Crassus was responsible for the reintroduction of decimation. If the Roman army is not fighting well or there is insubordination or cowardice, irrespective of degrees of fault, rank or distinction, there is a cure.

One man in every 10, in every legion who drew lots and lost, would be scourged and beheaded by the men who drew the long straws. It focused the mind wonderfully on the job at hand. If the troops fought well in the next battle - no decimation.

For a coach who announced his departure way too early and has lost his hold on his team, dropping such a loyal servant and popular character was purely about Joe Schmidt's imposition of his will. It would have been far easier to leave Kleyn behind and take Toner but the team is in trouble and Schmidt borrowed from his compadre Warren Gatland.

Wazza dropped Brian O'Driscoll because he needed to win the Lions Test series - no one expected that call but it galvanised his team. Gatland was at it again earlier in the week when he dropped outstanding Grand Slam loosehead Rob Evans.

Wales travel with just one experienced prop - even on his last tournament Gatland couldn't help himself.

The Irish team now realise that if Joe callously jettisons such a loyal servant for a blow-in Saffer and all the attendant negative publicity it will garner, then he's capable of anything.

Whether this is his intention or not, it is a master stroke.

Hail Joe!

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