Saturday 16 December 2017

Neil Francis: Time for Ireland to think outside the box for new scrum-half

If two full-backs can play in the centre for Ireland, why can't a winger play at scrum-half, especially when Conor Murray's successors look thin on the ground?

Conor Murray has been an oasis of calm in the Irish No 9 shirt, but who will replace him? (SPORTSFILE)
Conor Murray has been an oasis of calm in the Irish No 9 shirt, but who will replace him? (SPORTSFILE)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

When you consider what was on offer last weekend in the sports world, and you think that Grenoble versus Connacht was the pick of it - surely that represents a seismic shift in the way Connacht are now playing.

For Connacht they have had to take hot ashes for dreams. When the sporting gods throw the dice, artistic merit rarely gets mentioned in their deliberations. I now enjoy watching Connacht play rugby but as their brio and dash yielded nothing - unfortunately, there is no legitimacy in complaining about the merit of winning or losing in knockout rugby even after the way they played.

After Connacht's performance, Grenoble would have been justifiably content to revel in the role of gallant loser. If life was fair, Elvis would be alive and well and his impersonators would be dead. Grenoble head to the Stoop to play Harlequins, Connacht have to produce another rabbit in the face of a team who would quite happily sell their entire families to the white slavers for the sake of four points in the Sportsground this weekend.

Maybe it's just as well everything is a blur at the moment - if Connacht took time out to reflect they might fall over. The game this coming Saturday is too difficult to call.

One of the things that amazed me about the entire adventure was how Connacht got by with an out-half who is effectively fourth choice. Take this any way you want it but how good is a guy who is in that position? Shane O'Leary more than got by. He had an appetite for the contest and his skill levels stood up to the occasion.


If he had been on the pitch in the frantic last three or four minutes would he have had the minerals to drop a winning goal? Maybe the reason Connacht did not attempt to fashion a drop-goal was because Peter Robb might not have been the right guy to sit in the pocket - fifth-choice Connacht out-half. Connacht had no choice but to go for the try or penalty for the win.

The player I had my eye on the most in this match was Kieran Marmion. I had said a few weeks earlier that I was unsure about him and while he had a good game last Saturday I am a long way off being certain about him being an international-standard scrum-half.

Back in September when the RWC15 squad was announced everyone in Ireland was trying to convince themselves that Ian Madigan could play scrum-half. Had Madigan played that position at school? Was his pass good enough? Could he box-kick? Joe Schmidt, it seems, has his doubts too.

Irrespective of how his outfield/utility contributions went, the facts are that Marmion, if he had a compelling case to present for selection, would have been there on merit or even ahead of Eoin Reddan. Schmidt went with Darren Cave as an extra centre and took three out-halves. Only two scrum-halves? Could Marmion's omission come from that shocker at Independent Park against England Saxons the January before last or was it his inability to tick some of the boxes demanded by Schmidt? He did get some game time in this year's Six Nations but at this stage you would have justifiable concerns as to why he cannot get ahead of 36-year-old Eoin Reddan.

Conor Murray, apart from a couple of overcooked box-kicks in the England and Scotland games, was an oasis of emotional calm. Every game he plays it seems there is a performance of mature, purposeful effort. We are blessed to have a player of such quality in this crucial position.

At 24, you would have expected Marmion, given his rating, to be further along the chain than he is right now. If the sporting gods are kind, Murray will have another six or seven years performing at international level. As Jordan Spieth will tell you, sometimes the sporting gods can be very unkind and if Murray was ever out of the national squad for an extended period of time, Ireland would be in serious peril.

Where are we going with this train of thought? - I'll tell you. I have been looking around for scrum-half talent in the provinces and not only can I not find any up-and-coming superstars - I can't even find any up-and-coming players who are even remotely close to living up to their billing. Our stocks of potential international class prospects are pretty low at the moment. It may be time to think outside the box.

The game has evolved to the stage where sometimes a scrum-half's pass is secondary to how he box-kicks. Sometimes it is not the quality of his pass but his option-taking and direction of play that he chooses to take. Sometimes the quality of his defensive awareness is the key or how a nine barks orders to his forwards in a maul or how he anticipates himself as a corner-flagging defender. It is a complex position - passing is only a small part of it.

Marmion's strengths are evident - he has a decent pass, his running game and his ability to break are good. He is quick. Whether he can control a game of consequence consistently may be the charge levelled against him. I do like running scrum-halves but in this neck of the woods Murray is as good as there is. Saturday's head to head will be compelling.

I have always thought that Shane Williams was wasted on the wing for Wales. He was such a special player that the Ospreys and Wales used to give him roving licence to go to the breakdown to make things happen. How many times did you see him go into the tackle zone and create havoc? Why not just pick him there all of the time - pick Mike Phillips on the wing! The more times Williams got his hands on the ball . . .

I look at our stock of international wingers that are available for Ireland. Bowe, Trimble, Earls, Fitzgerald, Kearney, Zebo and McFadden. The age profile here is still pretty good. Most of them are over six foot and near enough 15 stone. All good in the air and all good standard international class players.


These wingers, depending on your own point of view, are our No 1 to No 7 choice wingers. A closed shop you would think and you would be right. Joe Schmidt knows what he wants from his wingers. No Shane Williams or Nehe Milner-Skudders need apply.

Unfortunately, we have three of these type of players who week in, week out electrify with their performances in the Pro12 and above and are never really going to get any further.

Craig Gilroy, Matt Healy and Andrew Conway have lightning running through their veins. Every time they get the ball in hand something positive happens. They are the three quickest back three players on this island and the sense of danger and the unexpected visits any ground when these players come into possession of the ball.

Pity so that they are eighth, ninth and tenth choice and they have no chance of playing unless six players ahead of them either get injured or have a dramatic loss of form. Don't know about you, but these players are just too good to be holding tackle bags or cameo squad sessions.

We look back at the lack of quality in our scrum-half stocks and question the oft-talked notion about flexibility and interchangeability of modern players. If two full-backs can play in the centre for Ireland why can't a winger play scrum-half?

If Healy was good enough to make the change from scrum-half to wing/full-back and become the talk of the town, then surely he is good enough to switch back to the position he played in at the 2009 U-20 Six Nations and Junior World Cup. Can he pass? Throw him in.

Gilroy and Conway may think if they wait another two or three years most of that crop of wingers will either be gone or past it - they are young enough but there are no guarantees if you wait. There are always plenty of Mickey Dazzler wingers queuing up behind to get in. I see plenty of pre-programmed androids playing in the No 9 shirt for the representative/provisional sides without an ounce of wit or invention about them who have to ask their coach for permission to make a break or use their own initiative.

Who is thinking outside the box?

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