Thursday 24 January 2019

Neil Francis: The headmaster from Palmerston North strikes again as provinces reap benefits of following Joe's gospel

Talking Point

Cian Healy is tackled by Exeter’s Matt Kvesic last weekend. Healy has enjoyed a recent renaissance but that progress will be disrupted by the three-week ban that he was hit with last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Healy is tackled by Exeter’s Matt Kvesic last weekend. Healy has enjoyed a recent renaissance but that progress will be disrupted by the three-week ban that he was hit with last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In dodo land everything happens slowly. The neuro-transmitters that they gave you, well they were made in Taiwan. Somebody tells a joke, you don't get it, but you laugh anyway. Somebody explains the game-plan to you, they ask you if you have got it and you nod like the big sloppy St Bernard that you are. Are you sure? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

In an NFL game played too long ago to remember even who the two teams were, the heavily favoured side had just been beaten by a 20/1 outsider.

The hot favourites had possession in the last minute and needed a touchdown to win. The ball was thrown on fourth down and the wide receiver caught it but he caught it out of bounds which meant that the game was over and a huge upset had just happened.

As the prone wide receiver was lying out of bounds, it was probably only two or three seconds but a defensive tackle came over and plopped himself down on top of him while putting his elbow into the receiver's back. It was so late they were already queueing up for post-match interviews.

Referee called a personal foul, automatic first down and, sure enough, the stronger team got up and scored their touchdown.

What made the whole action so inexplicable and inexcusable was that the head coach of the weaker side was right beside his own line man when the personal foul took place. It was on the sideline off the field of play. The coach looked like he was going to cry.

In the NFL, they micromanage to the nth degree. They have sports psychologists, they have visualists, they have a battery of specialists who micromanage the one-per-cent gainers but you cannot legislate for people from dodo land.

As the game ended, the head coach asked his line man to take his helmet off.

You can spend days, weeks, months and years instructing players, imploring them for discipline, control and calm. You can spend hours in a day telling somebody not to give away not just stupid penalties but any penalties.

This coach solved his problem in one second with the words "you're fired" which are the most important words when it comes to making a point.

That line man wouldn't be giving away any more stupid penalties for that team and most likely for anyone else either.

That is the great thing about the NFL - place-kickers who miss chip shots from 25 metres to win Play-off games have their P45 in their bag before they leave the stadium. It's a ruthless business.

Why did all the Irish teams do so well in the back-to-back encounters in the Heineken Cup? The headmaster from Palmerston North has struck again. In last year's Six Nations Championship, Ireland gave away the least amount of penalties of any team in the competition - a total of 34 - which is an average of 6.8 penalties per game.

They have given away fewer penalties than every team that they played last season. Joe has banned the dodo. Joe can't fire you but he won't pick you if you start giving away too many penalties. I don't think Joe would pick Leicester's Dan Cole if he were Irish.

There have been many words written on Cian Healy's renaissance, some rave reviews and some insight into the inner turmoil while he was going through a playing crisis.

Healy's three-week ban for an indiscretion in the Exeter game, well that just might colour Joe's judgement about who gets the start in February against the French.

It is incredible how disciplined Schmidt's sides have become and it trickles down from the international side through to the provinces and our iconic players and standard-bearers make sure that it happens at provincial level.

Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and CJ Stander in Munster, Iain Henderson and Rory Best in Ulster and too many to mention in Leinster. In Heineken Cup matches, Irish teams are holding sway on the penalty count.

The one which was exceptional was Leinster's performance at Sandy Park where Leinster only conceded six penalties. That is the square root of winning away from home.

Ulster, too, showed great discipline when beating Harlequins in the snow - they only conceded six penalties that day as well. Munster conceded just seven last Sunday at Welford Road as opposed to 14 from Leicester. Most of the English teams run into double figures and in tight games that is the difference. These stats are not a coincidence and it is why Ireland and the provinces have become so difficult to beat - they don't give away penalties, they don't give you easy three-pointers and they don't give you an opportunity to get hemmed deep into their own territory.

The turnover figures mirror the penalty figures.

All of the provinces were really good on the ground and they also retain the ball with a casualness that you cannot reconcile with the level of effort it takes to hang on to it.

This is where Exeter lost their matches against Leinster - they were turned over 16 times and then 19 times in the two games. You can't win when you cough up the ball that many times.

Ireland's players who are centrally contracted are far fitter and sharper in the crucial games that they play they are far smarter at the breakdown and their discipline and code of ethics when it comes to not conceding stupid penalties is highly impressive. The English can moan and groan but that's where it's at.

Maybe it is a Lions hangover thing but on September 1 of this year Northampton played against Saracens and got whupped. Playing in that game were George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes - all who had played in the Lions Test series which would have been seven weeks of car-crash intensity at the end of a draining season.

They would have had to engage in a pre-season before September 1. How many weeks off did they get? Three maybe four? The professional athlete plays an 11-month season and if you are a tight forward playing on that rollercoaster your body will collapse and you will suffer fatigue throughout the season.

If you look at the November series and then the Champions Cup matches and what a toll it would take on you physically, you now realise why playing for an Irish province makes sense. Rest is required!

Leinster play Munster in Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day and given what is at stake in the Champions Cup and the Six Nations our top players should be rested all the way over Christmas.

Given the way that the European competition was hijacked because Irish teams were able to pick and choose the strength of the teams in their PRO12 league depending on what Heineken Cup games were coming up. We now have meritocracy in place.

So Leinster and Munster should not put out a second-string side - they should put out a third-string side and rub the English noses in it.

I have a feeling that Leinster and Munster will be seeing a lot of each other this season and this match in Thomond should be a run-out for the shadow squads so that the success of the last two months can be copper-fastened.

Well done to all over the Christmas period.

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