Sunday 18 March 2018

Neil Francis: Johnny Sexton wouldn't have tolerated some of the s**t that went on

Rory Best did not have a good day against Scotland – in either his hooker or captaincy role. Johnny Sexton’s leadership was missed. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The air hung heavy with retribution and revenge. The presiding judge rarely showed any mercy, saw any meaningful mitigation or had any compunction for lenient sentences. Judge Frano was a hanging judge and all those in his court room would be swinging by the time he had finished.

In the dock there were an assortment of players up for crimes against rugby on the 1994 tour of Australia - but most of them were Munster players - the Under-14s who were accused of going on their own tour. There would be no mercy. Sentences were harsh - a little too harsh for some! There would be recrimination. When it came - even I was shocked.

We were playing Australia in the ANZ Stadium in Sydney in the second Test. The normal lineout practice before the team meeting took place in the hotel grounds and on the way back to my room I get interrupted by Willie Anderson for some last-minute observations.

In a rush to get ready for the meeting, my key card doesn't work so I can't get into the room to change and bring my gear bag. I couldn't get hold of any hotel staff to let me in so I end up in the team meeting in my tracksuit.

Everyone else is in their number ones and ready to go. The meeting lasts about 25 minutes and everyone files downstairs and onto the bus. I tell management I will be down in two minutes. As I try to gain entry to my room again, the door handle comes off in my hand, the securable system bolts the door shut and the alarm goes off on the team floor as I try and force the door open.

Twenty minutes later, the hotel porter prises the door open with a crow bar. Toothpaste in my boots and condoms in my blazer. The porter's response rang true: "They gotcha good mate."

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The Test match was ultra-physical. I got laid out from the first kick-off - played the entire game concussed and scored a try in the first half. Peter Clohessy scored a second but the Irish amateurs couldn't live with the Australian semi-pros and their pace and fitness told in the end - 32-18.

Eric Elwood was on the park that day but it was Italy's coach for this Saturday's game Conor O'Shea who kicked our goals. I have a feeling that is all Italy will be doing this weekend.

Ireland's head coach Joe Schmidt Photo: PA News

Joe Schmidt's team were 15 minutes late to Murrayfield. We were at least 30 minutes late. The common theme with both sides is that we were beaten even before we set foot on the bus.

Individual players will try to rationalise a bad performance in the hours, days and weeks after the event. Training brilliantly in the lead-up to a Test match is a fool's paradise. Everyone will tell you they trained well in the lead-up - even if there was no zing and balls down all over the place.

There are about a dozen things in the lead-up to a game that will affect preparation and the game itself but if your attitude is not right it doesn't matter what happened before kick-off.

People made comparisons with the Rugby World Cup 2015 Argentina game. I think there were extenuating circumstances here - there was a fatigue factor and some injuries to key players which was a major factor in the Millennium Stadium in 2015. The similarities though were striking.

Argentina and Scotland both caught Ireland cold and both teams raced into commanding leads in the first half. Argentina are a very good side - you can call me uncharitable but Scotland are not.

Argentina's ascendancy was down to their own brilliance. Scotland's tries were down to a lack of attitude from Ireland. If Ireland were with it - switched on, ready to go - Scotland would still have been going side to side for the first half.

The fact that Ireland "fixed their defence" after half-time told you what? It told you that you cannot faff around for 40 minutes against committed, organised and dangerous opponents.

Tackling is a mental thing. Tweaking your defensive system is a euphemism for adjusting your attitude. Defensively, Jared Payne was a big loss but I thought Johnny Sexton's loss was bigger. Superior players have a voracious appetite to do the right thing and for their team-mates to do the right thing.

There is a want - a need - to impose themselves and this unyielding competitiveness is infectious. You know that these superior players have the right attitude going into any match - even a kick-around - and they expect everyone in the team to have the same.

I am sure Joe Schmidt took out the meat cleaver at half-time but Sexton would have had it in his hand under the posts after the first Scottish try.

A calf injury has ruled Ireland's Johnny Sexton out of the Six Nations opener against Scotland

Half-time in a Test match can often be too late. Team-mates from the Lions to Racing 92 get pissed off with the narkiness, the screaming and shouting from Sexton but either way it is warranted when it's not going right or when it's not right - there is a distinct difference. Paddy Jackson played well last Saturday but Sexton would not have tolerated some of the s**t that was going on.

Rory Best, too, did not have a good game. His darts were poor and you would have to question what was going on at the front of the lineout when Scotland got their sucker-punch try.

Who is doing the thinking? I am reminded of that ad on television at the moment about industrial safety. If you go into the workplace on auto-pilot you could pick up a serious injury. Ireland were on auto-pilot.

It was an unthinking performance and lacked the care and precision you normally associate with Schmidt teams. The coach too can take a share of the blame. Bear Bryant, the Alabama head coach, marked the difference succinctly when he said: "It's not the will to win that matters - everyone has that. It's the will to prepare to win that matters."

The big wins against South Africa, New Zealand and Australia have been well-documented; maybe it is easier to prepare for a side that is placed above you. A bit more difficult when it's a team five places behind you. You can't have your team humming all of the time but they were a good distance off where you would expect a Schmidt team to be.

It can be difficult for a coach to assess whether his team is primed to do what he wants them to do. Schmidt's teams sometimes can go 20 minutes off kilter before they recover themselves.

I can't see Ireland recovering themselves in time for Italy. I am certain they will win and pretty confident that they will garner five points but it could be the French game before Ireland recover their mojo.

Conor O'Shea's task of whipping Italy back into shape looks a forlorn hope - particularly if Sergio Parisse doesn't play. There is very little hope of catching Ireland cold and Italy are still looking for the skill-set and the fitness to consistently trouble any of their partners.

Beating Italy by the requisite number of tries is a chore that Ireland will fulfil - we won't know whether they have found their correct mental place until they take on the French in just over two weeks. That will be the doorway (ahem) to rapprochement.

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Irish Independent

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