Wednesday 17 July 2019

Neil Francis: WWE show at the 3Arena similar to PRO12 Leinster at the RDS

There is no point picking a second-row just for his size profile, writes Neil Francis

Devin Toner, Leinster
Devin Toner, Leinster
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Picture the scene. A large enthusiastic crowd ready for the contest. Loud rock music, strobe and pulse lights injecting energy into the occasion. Beer, hot dogs and popcorn.

The crowd starts to chant for their heroes as the PA cranks up the noise levels, naming the teams. Huge men run out onto the arena and begin to knock lumps out of each other. It doesn't matter that we don't see a ball. Half-time comes and goes and they are back at each other again - huge hits. The combatants go down injured, the entertainment level gets lower the farther the affair goes on but it doesn't matter, the good guys always win. But my God it is dull. Why do people go and watch this stuff?

Is this Leinster versus a Pro12 side at the RDS? No, it is professional wrestling, but sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between the two.

I was at the WWE event at the 3Arena on Thursday. There was a large and enthusiastic audience. What did I think? Utter tosh! Proof positive though that if you market it people will turn up. The similarities between a night at the RDS and an evening of WWE are striking.

My nine-year-old found the whole thing absorbing until he asked, "Why do the guys who come into the ring last always win?"

The next day he was telling all his friends "the wrestling - you know it's all pre-determined?"

"What does that mean?"

"They know who is going to win beforehand."


"Bit like the Toulon-Leinster game next week."

"Now I get it."

My son learned the difference between entertainment and sport and like his older brothers recognised that what happens in the ring is utterly irrelevant. Television producers and shareholders decide who 'wins' and size or anything else really doesn't matter for entertainment or showbiz.

Mercifully, what happens on the pitch is just about still relevant - but as the quality of the on-field fare deteriorates I find myself more and more writing about what goes on off the field. Here we are between European quarter-finals and semi-finals and, well, we are talking about matters pretty far from the field.

When the Big Show rumbled onto the stage last Thursday there were gasps of amazement. Seven foot one inch and 450 pounds - a truly enormous human being. My nine-year-old still couldn't reconcile what was going to happen. Nobody could possibly beat this behemoth, surely not. The realisation hit him that the Big Show had indeed come out first and sure enough Roman Reigns dispatched him. Behemoths can be beaten. Toulon can be beaten - but by arrangement only.

Off the field, the transfer market was abuzz last week and Leinster's three big signings were, well, Leinster players: Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Mick Kearney. Around the rugby world I think that somebody like Mourad Boudjellal feels he has to go out into the market and buy players on a regular basis. There are two reasons for this: one is that the age demographic is high in his squad and most of them only have two or three years left and his roster needs to be replaced regularly; the other is the thrill of the buy, the splash, the news - we've bought another superstar.

Ulster and Munster had their moment in the sun earlier in the week. Charles Piutau and Francis Saili were coming to town. Woo hoo! Players like Brendan Macken, Noel Reid and JJ Hanrahan, all indigenous, home-produced quality players coming through our schools and academy systems and they are sucking hind teat, forced to go elsewhere or bide their time. It is wrong and wasteful.

Let's examine some of those buys. Over the course of the years we have observed Devin Toner maximise every sinew of potential in his body. He is an international-class lock and an important member of the Ireland and Leinster squads. It is edifying to see him perform at the level he is currently at.

Toner, though, is not all things to the second-row fraternity and what makes him a valuable member of society is his relationship with Paul O'Connell. The two complement each other remarkably well. They counterbalance each other's strengths and weaknesses. I suppose Paul O'Connell would be a perfect foil for any second-row.

Leo Cullen was also a very good foil for Toner and Leinster's totem made a quantum leap in progression as a rugby player by his association with these two and by dint of hard work and application.

Toner needs someone to complement him and compensate for the sectors where he is not so strong. Leinster, at the end of the last season, brought in Kane Douglas. It is already on record that I do not rate him. Currently he is injured, yet another hamstring injury - somebody is still getting something wrong in the physiological/conditioning over here. Douglas played in all six pool games for Leinster. He did not start in all of the games but his stats are scarcely believable. I rely on stats because it gives substance and truth to your initial thoughts through an 80-minute game while assessing 30 players.

In six games, Douglas made 20 tackles, won seven lineouts and carried the ball for 18 metres. That is 3.5 tackles, just over one lineout and three metres of carry per game. This in a pool section where Leinster's scrum was pushed around the park like a pram. Where were the dam -busting line-breaks? The all-enveloping clear-outs? I am middle-aged and hopelessly unfit but for €200k I could do better than that.

Douglas is not good enough, or a proper foil for Toner, and so Leinster went looking for yet another second-row. Proof yet again that buying players just because they are available is the wrong approach. If Joe Launchbury or a Launchbury equivalent was available, now that would be a good foil for Toner. If not, keep your money in your pocket. They went west and had a look around. Quinn Roux has made a permanent move to Connacht. Mike Kearney was available. A former Leinster underage player, he has had a decent season with Connacht and is a decent forward. Is he a Heineken Cup-standard player? How would he fare against Ali Williams next week if he was in the Leinster side? Kearney is not big by international standards, 6' 5" and 18 stone isn't going to have Bakkies quaking in his boots.

But you don't need to be the Big Show anymore to be an effective lock forward. I have seen Brad Thorn close up, he is not a big man. What he indisputably is, though, is a powerhouse. He is a master of the clear-out, a high-octane carrier, a devastating tackler and a man who takes no prisoners at the breakdown. He could also buttress a set scrum and his handling prowess was phenomenal.

You don't have to be 6' 7" or 6' 8" to do these chores. You don't have to be 6' 8" to win a lineout. You can be any height you want if you could carry out what Thorn does on the field.

There are hundreds of second-rows floating around Europe at the moment who are 6' 6" and 18 stone - what I would call homogeneous units. They do a bit of lineout, scrummage here, a carry there, a tackle in the first half, a clear-out in the second, proficient at a few things, Jack of all trades, but you couldn't say 'wow this guy makes 15 tackles a game' or is a 'devastating carrier.'

What is the point in picking a second-row because he fits the height and weight profile but only performs in two or three of the requirements of second-row play? Somebody like Kevin McLaughlin has been such an effective player for Leinster over the years. Injury-prone and hitting 30, you might say he is behind a big queue for the No 6 jersey, but as a second-row he would carry more ball effectively and make more quality tackles than anyone in Leinster's second-row roster.

Rhys Ruddock is another very powerful performer who could be an outstanding and highly effective second-row. He is no smaller than Brad Thorn. Ben Marshall, who plays today against the Dragons, is another player who has the capability of excelling in the second-row for Leinster. Primarily a back-rower, he is athletic and a good footballer and if he was afforded the same match time and energy that 'special project' Quinn Roux was, he would be farther progressed than Roux is now. These players can pack on three-quarters of a stone in several months if required.

Leinster have to get their balance right in their second-row or they will continue to suffer. This paucity will be graphically illustrated in the Big Show next Sunday in Marseille.

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