Wednesday 22 November 2017

Neil Francis: No team can let its key men be victims of intimidation

In the old days, a '99' call was the solution - nowadays a more subtle plan is required

Robbie Henshaw (right) looks on anxiously as Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton is treated by the medics following Frans Steyn’s tackle last Friday SPORTSFILE
Robbie Henshaw (right) looks on anxiously as Leinster team-mate Johnny Sexton is treated by the medics following Frans Steyn’s tackle last Friday SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

On August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Florida with such unprecedented force that a dozen years later we still know its name on this side of the pond. Near enough 1,800 souls lost their lives and there was $108bn worth of damage caused.

Most of the damage came about when the levees protecting New Orleans broke their banks around the city and its greater metropolitan area. The stand-out visual memory was the sight of the poor of New Orleans huddling in their subdued masses in the Superdome in Louisiana - the home of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, a franchise that was as poorly situated as the unfortunate survivors packed together in the dome.

A sure sign that Hollywood screenwriters pen our fate came only a few years later when the truly hopeless Saints won Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, beating the Colts 31-17. For the state of Louisiana, which had been simply devastated, it was hard to put into words how much this win meant under those circumstances.

Five years on from the disaster, the team would still need an open top boat to complete their victory tour of the city. Amid all the horror - a ray of light?

But as the Saints came marching in for victory, something which could be likened to the stench of rancid swamp water left behind in the hurricane's wake followed the team around for the best part of three years, resulting in one of the biggest scandals in the NFL history - Bountygate.

Engaged

In summary, the Saints defensive co-ordinator Greg Williams put a bounty on opposition heads in games that the Saints engaged in from their Super Bowl drive forward, resulting in mass suspensions and impeachment.

Williams encouraged his defence to 'take out' key players in the opposition ranks for figures as high as $10,000. Kill shots! Williams was found guilty of encouraging his players to intentionally injure important players on their opposition's roster.

Star opposition players like Brett Favre and Kurt Warner were roughed up so badly they had to leave the pitch in key games. In a big game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Saints defensive players were encouraged to target punt returner Kyle Williams especially. Williams was particularly susceptible to concussion and a head shot would take him out of the game.

A truly reprehensible philosophy. Michael Crabtree, the star 49er wide receiver with a dodgy ACL, also had his knee targeted.

The key to the philosophy was that if you inflicted these kill shots with an illegal hit, you could be ejected from the game and your team could suffer costly on-field penalties. The trick - and it is quite easy to work in a contact sport - is to effect a legal tackle but do it in such a way that you have a good chance of seriously injuring the player. $10,000!

There were serious suspensions and fines for the Saints and the NFL issued guidelines and directives about bounty plays from 2012 on.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton received some rough treatment over the weekend in the Heineken Cup.

I would not for a moment think that Montpellier or Glasgow would engage in the same class of misconduct that the New Orleans Saints were found guilty of but there was no question that both of our key players were singled out for special treatment, and issuing a red card or sanction after the game is of very little value if your key influencer or quarterback is taken out.

What to do?

It was so a strange coincidence that I flicked on Sky Sports last Monday night to find Keith Wood and Willie John McBride chewing the cud about their respective Lions series wins in South Africa.

The two boys, founder members of the shrinking violet society for gentle boys, were talking about how rough the game was way, way back in 1974, and Woody asked Willie John about the famous '99' call.

McBride's reply ranged from stoic humour to Shankly-like life-and-death seriousness. McBride could not or would not say it but I can. On that tour to South Africa literally every referee was in my opinion cheating, and it got to the stage where the Lions (as they might have to do this summer) had to take the law into their own hands.

When '99' was called, you had to punch the nearest opponent to you as hard as you could. Gareth Edwards and Phil Bennett, who were the Lions' key players, were the obvious targets, and Bennett at five foot nothing swallowed hard and asked, "Does that include me too?" "Yes it does!"

McBride explained that they were playing against Eastern Province before one of the Tests in what he described as a "softening-up game." All Eastern Province were missing were some hatchets and a few machetes.

After 25 minutes Edwards - the player of the series so far - was laid out, late and off the ball. '99' was called and 10 seconds later there were five Eastern Province players laid out on the ground. It was a tremendously effective tactic in the sense that the referee had to actually referee the game now.

Eastern Province gave up the rough stuff immediately. McBride said it worked because the referee couldn't send all five of them off - Wayne Barnes would, but not this guy. In the huddle, McBride turned to Bennett to enquire who he'd hit. "I hit the ball boy."

So now in important games key players are singled out for special attention. The last generation of O'Driscoll and O'Gara always had to deal with players annoying them, late tackles, early tackles, jersey pulls, holding them on the ground and sometimes a lot more.

Key players are pressurised an awful lot more, they are squeezed and intimidated - sometimes just enough to break their concentration - sometimes to completely take their focus off what they should be doing.

Hunting

If they were hunting down Edwards in 1974, why is it a surprise that they are doing the same right now?

Some of the stuff that came Murray's way was well within the law; some of it strayed outside. There is no question that Glasgow recognised how important he is to Munster. If I was coach to Glasgow I would have targeted Murray as well - it would have been a dereliction of my duties if I hadn't. Important game. . . give this guy a free ride? Not a chance! Close him down, pressurise him and, yes, intimidate him too - put him off his game.

For the bits that were outside the law - what do you do when the officials fail to deal with it?

A '99' is great when you go for a walk down Dún Laoghaire pier but if you pulled one in a Heineken Cup game, you would be cited or sent off.

Once it is obvious that your key players are being targeted I have always felt that the best way to deal with it is to intimidate the intimidator. The second time Josh Strauss came in on Murray, his number should have been called out and the entire Munster pack should have surrounded him. If you grab somebody by the collar or push or jostle him, you won't get a yellow for it.

When a pack gathers around you after you have taken out their key man, as soon as the schemozzle is over with not a punch thrown, that player knows his card is marked - as do all his team-mates.

The referee also has a mental note - 'Glasgow 8 or Munster 9 - Munster's pack take umbrage, okay I will watch out for that'.

Quite how Frans Steyn was not surrounded and aggressively dealt with by the Leinster pack is beyond me. Team-mates who see it have to call it. A red card is very little recompense if your key man is out of the game for five or six weeks.

Steyn should not have been able to walk off that pitch without some aggressive remonstration or jostle from the Leinster pack or being completely surrounded by Sexton's team-mates, pushing and shoving him.

Intimidate the intimidator! Don't let them away with it!

Irish Independent

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