Thursday 23 November 2017

Neil Francis: Rory Best a worthy successor but Ireland will struggle in Six Nations

'Best for however long he is able to perform was the immediately obvious choice for Captain'
'Best for however long he is able to perform was the immediately obvious choice for Captain'
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We fondly remember Keith Gerard Mallinson Wood as our best hooker ever and as a totemic and iconic player. A gun fighter and a mix between Yul Brynner, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.

The arm is hanging off, the blood is dripping down the face and "just patch me up and send me back on." We the Irish people don't easily let just anyone into the Legends Club. Woody strolled into the pantheon, saw Willie John sitting in the Kings chair and told him to get up he was sitting in Wood's chair. That was probably a little bit presumptuous but Wood knows his place in rugby's world order.

Wood captained Ireland with an unpractised ease yet gave due deference to the rank. He was as good a captain as he was a player.

Yesterday Rory Best was chosen to lead Ireland for the Six Nations. A well-deserved honour. Most people at this stage can value Best's worth.

He is a serious proposition on the field. A tough forward, a player who continues to play his best even if the scoreboard might show a 20-point deficit.

Technically he is highly proficient. His darts wobble from time to time but he is vastly superior to all his hooking rivals in the Irish squad and indeed he is more accurate than Wood ever was.

Best is a really strong scrummager and people who say the art of hooking is dead should watch the Ulsterman's timing of the heel at scrum time.

Best has scored eight tries to Woody's 15 - that is one target he is unlikely to reach. The point here, though, is has Best superseded Wood as our best hooker?

Best will earn his 90th cap against the Welsh on Sunday February 7. A great achievement. Woody picked up 58 caps but at this stage caps are just semantics.

Honours too may be just seen as garnish - maybe not! Best has three Six Nations titles, two Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam on his CV. Woody played in an era where that sort of success was just a distant dream.

The fact that all this success happened to come about while Best was in the team is not merely a coincidence. He is not a conscript to the team ethic - he is a believer. Even O'Driscoll and O'Connell needed First Lieutenants and advice from trusted senior players who bought into the team dynamic.

Now Best has the three stripes on his shoulder, he has a deep reservoir of winning experience and hardened involvement of Test rugby. Maturity and patience are his watch words.

Best for however long he is able to perform was the obvious choice for captain. He will do a good job.

He will have to because the squad that was chosen yesterday is well short of the requisite quality to mount a meaningful challenge for the Six Nations.

The most obvious deficiency is based on our long-term injured.

Ireland are championship contenders with Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy Bowe in the side. Without them. . .

Henderson's loss is arguably the most acute.

Whoever replaces Henderson just won't, no matter how hard he tries, be able to do what the Ulsterman does.

A typical Test performance elicits a 15-plus tackle count, half a dozen unstoppable line-bursts and five or six lineout wins, but best of all is the quality of his clear-outs.

No prisoners! In this championship and particularly against the Welsh you need players who can line-burst and clear the ruck aggressively. Nobody in this current second-row selection can do that.

The loss of O'Mahony too is a real head scratcher. O'Mahony had become such a pain in the ass for opposition teams, he was so effective that there were very few ways you could negate his influence.

He is what the Yanks call a 'difference maker.' O'Mahony has this uncanny ability to change the course of play in a match where not only does he make the tackle but he turns over the ball and then heads 10 yards down the field with it. These sort of interventions are priceless and will be seriously missed.

Sean O'Brien can do all of that too but Ireland's game has become so back-row-centric you will probably need to pick five players in that sector - if you could.

Rhys Ruddock is playing well but I would pick him in the second-row such is the paucity in quality there. Ruddock would be a serious option to consider given his size, tackle count and his ability to carry. Who would you prefer to carry ball, Devin Toner or Rhys Ruddock?

Schmidt's game is based on kick-chase and retention and Ireland's best kick-chase merchant is Bowe. After his early-season meltdown Bowe was Ireland's most effective outfield player in the World Cup.

Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and David Kearney all have their strengths but Andrew Trimble physically and tactically is the best fit of a replacement on the right wing for Bowe.

Sure as eggs are eggs Ireland's wingers will be chasing Conor Murray's box kicks all afternoon - the trick is to find his best chaser and jumper.

Ireland's problems are at No 3, No 4 and No 6, and although the personnel picked to fill a gap will do the job, doing the job is not going to be good enough and this is why Ireland will struggle.

I think Schmidt will stick with the players who know how to play his system and injury permitting this will I think be his 23:

R Kearney; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Best, Moore; Ryan, Toner; Ruddock, O'Brien, Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, J Cronin, Furlong, Stander, O'Donnell, Reddan, Jackson, Earls.

I would be surprised if there are any surprises. I think Schmidt should have picked a 36-man squad just so Garry Ringrose could be included and to keep the "very disappointed that Garry Ringrose didn't make the squad" brigade happy.

Irish Independent

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