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Neil Francis: 'Memo to Andy Farrell - puke rugby no longer works at the highest level'


Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will take charge of the team for the first time in the 2020 Six Nations. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will take charge of the team for the first time in the 2020 Six Nations. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will take charge of the team for the first time in the 2020 Six Nations. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Days and weeks after Ireland’s exit from the first World Cup in 1987, the press were in a random act of violence mode and everyone in the squad got a good kicking – everyone except me.

Because I was the youngest player to get selected, I had immunity from the vitriol that was being bandied about. I had 'Young Fella' on the back of my tracksuit, which automatically precluded me from abuse. 

I was the lord of the line out, the scion of the scrum, the turk of the tackle and brick-top of broken-field running – I was nothing of the sort, but it was important for the nation and the press to have hope for the future. All of my team-mates were completely useless human beings, but Hail Frano!

By the time the 1995 World Cup had finished, the press had organised public stonings of me every week. 

They would stop the last few rocks from being thrown at me – so that I would live – so they could enjoy another stoning the following week. Frano, the most useless rugby player in Christendom. Hail Jeremy Davidson, for he is the future. The cycle continues to this day.

Hard to know – do you play your best test rugby when you get picked in your early 20s or in your early 30s?

Post the World Cup I see a myriad of team of the tournament selections. Not an Irishman within a mile of selection. The question though, is would you pick them – any of them – as 22-year-olds? What are the chances of any of the current selections appearing in a team of the tournament selection in 2023? Another cycle continues.

Rugby is, more than any other field sport, a team game. The coach is the most important cog in the wheel – you are conditioned by everything that he tells you to do. You are only as good a team/player as that coach is able to impart structure and process upon the group but generally you should be a better player when you are aged 29-30 than 22-23, unless you develop a fondness for doughnuts or crystal meth mid-career.

The sad fact is that you are only ever going to be as good as the limits of your coach’s ambition or intellect, which is a tad despairing because there are some genuine dodos out there.

When you take charge of a team your primary task as a coach is to articulate your vision. If you don’t have one, well then just get your team really fit and try and copy what the team at the top of the food chain are doing.

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Sometimes the game changes as a result of unintended consequences. The smart coaches can see the opportunity before anyone else can. 

The referees' short-notice emphasis on head-high/shoulder-high tackles at the World Cup was designed to stop concussions in this phase of the game and, eh, class actions as well.

I am still to be convinced that it will stop two-man tackles. The players will, I suspect, go into contact at a far lower angle than previously. 

It is noticeable that there were no cards from the end of the pool stages onward. Coaches realised that losing players for an entire tournament for high tackles was just not worth it.  So everyone went for the chop tackle and some even slid into the tackle and the second guy waited to make contact. Is the new law going to be a game changer?

Will the law designed to protect players end up making the offload the unintended consequence? 

I am a disciple of the off-load. The way I see it is that one perfectly timed or executed off-load is better than 20 phases of bosh – that is if you can go 20 phases without making a mistake.

There are three national teams who play an off-loading game – New Zealand because they choose to, Fiji because they love to and Japan because they have to.

I thought Japan’s off-loading game, which was the primary reason they beat Scotland, was just mesmerising - they simply had to play that style of rugby to win that game. The try that illustrated the gulf in class between Ireland and New Zealand was the off-load from Kieran Read off the floor to Codie Taylor, who instinctively looked for the pass out of contact rather than a series of interminable close in drives.

What a simple game it would be to play if you just did away with the breakdown altogether. 

However, we all know it is not as simple as that. I am going to throw some stats at you: New Zealand 14  v Ireland 3; Australia 8 v England 3; France 11 v Wales 3; South Africa 2 v Japan 12; England 8 v New Zealand 15; South Africa 2 v Wales 2; England 12 vs South Africa 4.

Yep, you guessed it – apart from New Zealand v Ireland game – any team who chose to play the off-load game in the knock-out stages lost. 

In that dreadful semi-final between Wales and South Africa there were only four off-loads in total in 80 minutes. Puke rugby as Pat Spillane wouldn’t say.

Maybe I have just disproved the theory. Maybe Joe was right all along. The off-load was strictly forbidden unless you had a 90% or higher chance of connecting with a support player. It has become a game where possession and control of the ball are everything.

What are Ireland going to do for the Six Nations in February and March? Very often evolution is dictated by the person who sees the next move first – which is usually the Kiwis. 

What is Andy Farrell’s vision? More of the same crap or something radical? World Rugby are looking/trialling below-the-nipple tackling this season. If that is the case, then the game could be played the way the game is supposed to be played. I have pretty much had my fill of pods and bosh. 

Ireland’s teenage and 20-something players should be encouraged to view the off-load as the most natural thing in the world.

Farrell’s task is to teach his extended squads how and when to off-load and rediscover the art of passing.  A phone call to Stephen Larkham, who was the best passer of the ball that I have ever seen and should be co-opted into the national squad, for starters. World Rugby, if the trend isn’t followed, should reduce the tackle law to hip height to make sure that everyone gets the idea.

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