Monday 18 February 2019

Neil Francis: Very few players get second chances in Joe Schmidt's world

McGrath example reflects how Schmidt drives standards by not tolerating below-par displays

After not being involved with either province or country last weekend, Jack McGrath was back in training with Leinster this week. Photo: Sportsfile
After not being involved with either province or country last weekend, Jack McGrath was back in training with Leinster this week. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

This loosehead thing has exercised my mind a fair bit for the last couple of weeks. Last Friday our world-class loosehead Jack McGrath had the weekend off - no Dragons, no Pumas. Not that long ago, he played in all three Tests for the Lions against New Zealand and played well enough to suggest that he should start in all of the November Tests.

Last Saturday it took me a while to register what was going on. If you are not picked in the starting XV and you are not on the bench and you are not injured, that means you are dropped. I knew I never needed to do that MBA in Stanford.

Whither McGrath?

This is, you are certain, one of those temporary situations where normal service will be resumed and what is currently going on might be regarded as a speed bump. Maybe ask Seán Cronin about speed bumps.

There is a theorem called Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It has more to do with physics than crystal meth. It also has nothing to do with mind games played by national coaches. It is one of those imperceptible ploys used by coaches to get the best out of players.

Even the greatest players in the world throttle back sometimes - it's human nature. At times doubt or uncertainty can be used as a catalyst to improve performance if it is perceived that the player is performing within himself.

When Cian Healy burst onto the scene in 2007, he was a sensation. Not long after Ireland secured their Grand Slam in 2009, Marcus Horan was usurped and Healy would be our best loosehead prop - ever!

Cataclysmic A series of cataclysmic injuries including a hamstring avulsion, an ankle break and a neck/shoulder injury could all have brought an end to Healy's career. While Healy was recovering from these injuries, the unheralded Jack McGrath came in to keep the position warm for Healy.

In Ireland's truly memorable RBS Six Nations win in Paris on March 15, 2014, Ireland began to falter midway through the second half. The introduction of Iain Henderson and Jack McGrath soldered Ireland's flagging effort. The contribution of Henderson and McGrath for just 15 minutes was, in my opinion, the reason Ireland managed to fashion a 20-22 victory and a first championship for Joe Schmidt. These two players had the right stuff.

As the seasons rolled on from there, a combination of Healy's injuries and some continuous game-time where McGrath ably demonstrated what a serious prospect he was in every phase of the game. McGrath was a cert for New Zealand 2017 and duly performed. Healy could only watch in restrained frustration as his Leinster team-mate and the odious Mohawk from Harlequins joined Mako Vunipola on the plane over.

I have to say that I thought Healy was in trouble at that stage. Healy's performance levels had dropped and, always a sign, it was coupled with inexplicable faults in his discipline levels - stupid penalties compounded by consistent yellow cards.

It is so to his credit that the re-emergence of a lighter, far more dynamic, far more disciplined 2017 version of the Healy we knew five years ago has brought him back to the prop at the top of the food chain. It was a most unexpected development given McGrath's consistently good performances.

McGrath and Tadhg Furlong got over their Lions hangover on October 7 against Munster in the Aviva. Neither prop was conspicuous but they got short of 60 minutes of a work-out which should have had them in good stead for what promised to be a thorough examination of their tight game faculties when a super-sized Montpellier XV came to Dublin.

Leinster got up to a 12-point lead with their backs cutting Montpellier to shreds but the suspicion persisted that if Montpellier flexed their muscles, Leinster would have to scramble to stave off some concerted power.

That was borne out two minutes before half-time when Montpellier minced Leinster at scrum time on their own line and scored from a comedy of errors off the feed. The score going into half-time was 12-7. Montpellier might just hang about for the second half rather than take the easier option of a meek capitulation.

The following week Healy starts against Glasgow and the Leinster scrum nails the Glasgow eight to the floor. Healy scores two good tries and imposes himself all over the park. Was this a rotation selection? Or were we witnessing the deposed King coming back from exile to get rid of the usurper?

The provinces break up and the Ireland squad assembles at Carton House. McGrath has a hip problem and can't train fully. We all know that if you don't take a full part in training in the week prior to a Test match then you won't get picked - unless you are Johnny Sexton.

McGrath is out of the 23 to play South Africa and Ireland's pack do a number on the Springbok eight who had raised le drapeau blanc well before the final whistle.

McGrath starts against Fiji but could make no impression in any sector of the field. They called the great Jack Dempsey the Manassa Mauler when he was the heavyweight champion of the world. Jack McGrath faced Manasa Saulo at scrum time the Fijian was no Mauler yet McGrath was undone by him. Ireland did not get an inch out of Fiji at scrum time. McGrath was replaced inordinately early in the 46th minute. I remarked on it at the time - for Ireland not to be able to impose themselves in this sector against Fiji - where were they mentally?

I also said that some of those people who played might not be seen again in a green jersey for a long time - maybe even ever. I did not think that McGrath would be one of those discarded for the Argentina game. Was he fit to play? Yes, he was! Is it post-traumatic stress disorder from the Lions tour?

Tadhg Furlong started all the Tests in New Zealand and last Saturday he was bouncing and busting guys for fun and had a team-leading 17 tackles - fresh as a daisy. Healy had another big game and will probably start against Exeter in Sandy Park. McGrath will have to get his dander up against Benetton at the weekend. Can it get any worse?

Cocktail Eddie Jones had his own way of dealing with his Lions players who were off-key. He pretty much rested Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell for the November series because he wants them right for the Six Nations. What is Joe at? David Kilcoyne, who has been playing well, gets in on the bench and does well. Joe does not rest McGrath - he drops him. That is harsh but this is Joe. A delicious psychological cocktail. Schmidt has two high-standard loosehead internationals playing really well and one player who only four months ago was top of the food chain.

A salutary lesson to McGrath and the rest of the team (except the half-backs) is, that if you turn up half-baked or ill prepared or out of key mentally, you get the gate.

I am sure that McGrath has the mental fortitude to get himself back in the picture for the Six Nations but this little parable demonstrates that nothing stays the same and things can change in a thrice in professional sport and, OK, Joe can be a b******s too when he chooses to.

Uncertainty - what a driver!

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