Monday 10 December 2018

Neil Francis: How can you trust a man who wears a bun in his hair to defend your line?

French try scorer Teddy Thomas. Photo: Getty Images
French try scorer Teddy Thomas. Photo: Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Back in December, Racing 92 played Castres away in the third leg of their Champions Cup pool. It was an unremarkable game which Castres won 16-13 — an unremarkable game save for one moment.

In the first half Teddy Thomas got the ball on the right wing, pretty much the exact position he received it when he scored his try against Ireland earlier this month. He turned on the after-burners, beat a couple of players with the sort of nonchalant contempt that rugby speedsters have for ordinary mortals with four-cylinder engines under the bonnet.

Thomas got over the line and rounded under the posts to score one of those tries that only he can. Except he didn’t. Castres right wing Afusipa Taumoepeau accelerated as Thomas slowed down to enjoy the moment and he caught the French winger over his right shoulder and knocked the ball out of his grasp and over the dead-ball line. It’s a YouTube howler.

The hottest seats in hell are reserved for wingers who fail to score when they get over the line like that. A winger’s job is to score when he gets near or over the line. It is the place-kicker’s job to convert the try out from where it was touched down.

Thomas was blissfully unaware of the periphery and had switched off when he got over the line, and paid the price. I like Rowan Atkinson but I have never liked his forgettable Johnny English Bond spoof movies. I do, however, remember the tag line: “Johnny English. He knows no fear, he knows no danger, he knows absolutely nothing.”

Thomas has scored three absolutely scintillating tries in two matches in this Six Nations. He is electro-glide in blue blessed with the sort of pace that Muhammad Ali joked about. ‘I’m so fast I can turn off the light and be in bed before it gets dark.’

Thomas’s first score against Scotland last week was a beauty, again not dissimilar to the one he scored against Ireland the week before — and yes, he got the ball down as well.

The problem with Teddy is that he gave one up again almost immediately. Thomas’s defensive performance in the lead-up to Sean Maitland’s try on his wing was like something out of the Marx Brothers. How can you trust a man who wears a bun in his hair and has a name reminiscent of a 1930s tap dancer from a Hollywood musical to defend your line?

Thomas is clueless defensively, and while he has scored eight tries in his 10 Test appearances, he has probably been responsible for conceding more than that. Thomas has only picked up 10 caps in five years since he was first capped. He gets exposed horribly and he gets dropped and then he scores some wonderful tries for his club and they pick him again. Thomas has lost nearly all the games he has played for France. Even the second try against Scotland was on the back of a breathtaking lack of tact and awareness: he had three support runners inside him and he chose to chip, and only poor directional judgement by Greig Laidlaw let him away with it. A simple pass inside and it was a score. No need to chip on a 50-50 play. He has no idea.

Joe Schmidt could not believe his luck that the team Ireland were facing in their opener had Thomas on one wing and Virimi Vakatawa on the other. Which wing do I first exploit defensively?

When the pressure ramps up and the heat comes on, players like Thomas disintegrate or disappear. They know how to score (sometimes), but you cannot depend on them to tackle or defend as part of a team.

Thomas won’t play against Italy next week because he was one of the ‘Edinburgh Nine’. France actually might win that game.

Now that Ireland have disposed of the Latins it is time to deal with the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts on the other side of the pond. This, my friends, is when Andy Farrell, Shaun Edwards, Paul Gustard and Matt Taylor take over. Ask any of them would they have Teddy Thomas in their side and the answer would be observed in the facial tics displayed by each coach when the Frenchman’s name is spoken.

If Ireland are to have a successful Championship they will have to improve defensively. It has been good for 60 minutes in both games so far, but their last-quarter performances have been mostly lacking in concentration. The fall-off in line-speed was telling in both games. Ireland were 42-0 up with 55 minutes played last Saturday and looked a good bet to test the 70-point mark and to nil Italy as well. The Italians, we were told, simply don’t have the fitness levels to survive into the last quarter. It seemed to me that they had plenty of sap left in their legs.

Was Tommaso Castello too quick for Dan Leavy in midfield or had the Leinster flanker momentarily switched off? Did Jordan Larmour give Matteo Minozzi too much space on the outside? In fairness, the Italian fullback’s footwork was very nifty and Larmour wasn’t the only one caught by his impressive pace.

Ireland got caught too narrow again for Italy’s third try. They had at that stage stopped coming up as forcefully as they had done in the previous 60 minutes. Were they tired or just waiting for their next score to happen? It is difficult to keep the foot on your opponent’s throat when the scoreboard clicks like a revolving door. Playing against Italy is bad preparation for the sterner tests ahead.

If Ireland repeat those concentration levels and lack of care next Saturday, Wales will do us again. Ireland have not been their November selves thus far; the weekend would be a good time for them to return to the team we expect them to be.

If we lack motivation, well then a reminder of that 22-9 loss to Wales at the Principality Stadium last year should be enough to elicit a response.

Wales played a free-wheeling offloading game to utterly flummox Ireland when we expected to face one-out runners to get around the corner. There were four offloads en route to George North’s first try. It caught Ireland cold defensively. Wales were at it again in Twickenham last Saturday with some dexterous handling out of the tackle. How they did not score a try is a mystery.

North’s second try last year was out of the Teddy Thomas school of defending. Rhys Webb goes down the narrow side off a lineout maul and Simon Zebo comes in off his wing and North is untouched as Webb makes the pass. Johnny Sexton’s chip over the top deep in his own 22 in the last few minutes of that game is blocked by Jamie Roberts as Ireland desperately try to make up the 15-9 deficit. Roberts gathers to score by the posts as the Samaritans switchboard goes into overdrive.

A calamitous loss, and lest we forget, Ireland were held try-less — nor did we look like scoring. Wales sat back and soaked it all up, tackled and defended with gusto and real purpose and waited for the mistakes. Wales will be quite happy to play rope-a-dope with us again and are one of the few sides that have our number psychologically. Hit Ireland hard, soak up their pressure, don’t give them any quick ball and stop their structured game and they are ordinary.

This one is down to who is the smarter defensively and which team has a player who will be caught out defensively. There are no Teddy Thomas types playing on Saturday but all it takes is a one momentary lack of attention from a player who knows how to defend and that will be the game.

The next three matches in this series will be more about Keith Earls’ great chase down on Mattia Bellini or Sam Underhill’s brilliant turn tackle on Scott Williams. Games at the back end of the Six Nations are known in the trade as ‘proper Test matches’.

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