Wednesday 25 April 2018

Neil Francis - Clean-room rugby is taking joy and vitality out of our game

Jack Conan celebrates scoring against Fiji: ‘As Conan waited for his team-mates, he wasn’t blowing hard. In fact, he wasn’t blowing at all’what’s
Jack Conan celebrates scoring against Fiji: ‘As Conan waited for his team-mates, he wasn’t blowing hard. In fact, he wasn’t blowing at all’what’s
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I recently saw Danny Boyle's Olympic montage for the London 2012 opening ceremony again. In it there was a clip of Noel Mannion scoring his famous try in Cardiff in 1989.

As the action played out, Mannion confronted Bleddyn Bowen as the Welsh centre was attempting to chip the ball through. The pill pinballed against both players and stood up for the Irish number 8 - it could scarcely be called an act of sporting larceny because the ball just seemed to invite itself into the big man's grasp and off he went. David Bryant gave chase, but in vain, as Mannion kept his form and scored in the right-hand corner. The minute the try was scored it went into lore - storied, fabled, it has a double gloss coating.

If Noel overstayed his time in a coffee shop to find that a parking inspector was writing up a ticket - "oh, you are that guy who scored that try in Cardiff" and then probably still give him the ticket.

As Mannion dotted the ball down he stayed down on the ground in faux exhaustion - except it wasn't an act. Ireland's number 8 was bollixed. He had run no more than 63 metres in the first half of the game but could barely get off the ground. As he walked back to his side of the field, Mannion was barking for oxygen, sucking it up with his hands clasped above his crown, unable to grasp that rugby immortality had been conferred upon him in the time it takes to squeeze the flavour out of a teabag in your mug.

Mannion was a product of his time and his respiratory distress was that of an amateur player who pulled something out of the bag when space opened up in front of him. It was, and still is, a great try.

In the 33rd minute of the Fiji game in this year's Guinness series, Jack Conan, in rather the same circumstances, happened upon a loose ball on the half-way line. It somehow invited itself into Conan's possession and he did not hang around. There were some Fijians on the pitch who have turbo glide in their gear box, but Conan's effortless pace got him there without a hand laid on him.

The point observed here is that, as Conan waited for his team-mates to show their appreciation, he wasn't blowing hard. In fact, he wasn't blowing at all! I suspect that if both of these Ireland number 8s had a 100-metre sprint, Conan would cross the line 10 metres or so ahead of Mannion. He has real gas. This was a demonstration of physical progress. David Attenborough might not be impressed, but 28 years of rugby evolution shows you what the modern athlete can do today. Comparisons here between the generations are maybe just a little bit trite.

The thing though about Conan's try is that, well, it just won't be remembered. It seemed that Conan was just nonchalantly delivering the post whereas Mannion was in the Pony Express, keeping one step ahead of some bloodthirsty Comanche Indians.

Rugby as it is played today is almost a pre-determined scientific experiment played out in a clean room. Sanitised! Germ-free! We should bring in new sponsors, the Dettol November series.

Sometimes you yearn for chaos and disorder. You crave some heroic failure. Winning supersedes everything, but some of the clean-room rugby that is being played leaves the occasion a little bit joyless. Even the occasional spark and vitality is pre-planned - not a hint of spontaneity.

When I saw that Malcolm Young had died it reminded me of the last time I enjoyed myself, really enjoyed myself, at the Aviva - it was at an AC/DC concert a few years ago.

I have talked to hundreds of patrons before and after this particular series and while all seemed happy to be there, there seems to be this cheerful indifference to what's going on out on the pitch. There has been very little authentic atmosphere in the stadium. It is not morose, but it is definitely lacking soul or any form of real excitement worthy of animation.

If you are looking for pointers, maybe look at the length of time it takes the punters to come back to their seats after half-time.

Me? There is no substitute for winning, but maybe the fans look at Schmidt the clinician and his prescriptive brand of rugby. Maybe it is because of the ease of victory that the paying customer's imagination isn't being captured. South Africa, Fiji and Argentina all dispatched without getting past third gear. Are these the salad days? Is it now the case that our competitive juices don't flow anymore unless it's New Zealand? Bring on the All Blacks. Don't bother with the Wallabies - if Scotland put 53 points on them, what point is it giving that bunch a game?

We will of course be drawn to the flame when our treacherous neighbours, Wales and Scotland, arrive on our shores. The Scots are talking about a championship. I suspect that there won't be any Mexican waves at those matches - nor will anyone complain about the manner of the win.

There wasn't much watchable rugby played in Europe this autumn. Ireland and England will be happy with their 3-0 record but the performances, while impressive in parts with some quality tries, lack real excitement.

You succeed in this game by attention to detail. Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt have the same coaching DNA. Their players fear them and it shows in their demeanour on the field. Coached and drilled, subjugated and systematised. Joyless faces on the pitch and nothing to light up the crowd. As somebody said to me the other day about England's Pennyhill headquarters, "the first five-star prison".

There were dozens of Tests played this November, but for me the one that stood out was the 23-23 draw in Nanterre between France and Japan. Apparently, Japan were quite unlucky not to get the win against a strong French XV.

The biggest casualty in the trend for attention-to-detail-coached sides are the French. As the joke goes, what happens when you take your Viagra in some prune juice? You don't know whether you are coming or going! The French have no idea what to do about their national side. For years a team of great individualists who clicked on any given day, they simply cannot conform to the regimen of the coaching structure that England, Ireland and now possibly Scotland have.

Guy Noves has no idea how to deal with the structured order of these sides and he can't figure out how to play with the same panache and flair that France enjoyed no more than 10 years ago. Rugby has been coached to death. Ireland head to France in February, they will play the way the drill sergeant says and they will win.

The cult of the dominant coach and the era of the homogeneous rugby player is upon us. Dull, mistake-free aerial bombardments. A few thrills in February would be nice.

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