Monday 20 November 2017

Neil Francis: We played that 100 seconds like gentlemen, we should've played it like gurriers

Brian O'Driscoll's absence from the endgame cost Ireland a famous victory, says Neil Francis

Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll reacts to the TMO of the final New Zealand try
Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll reacts to the TMO of the final New Zealand try
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Many people asked me over the course of the last week if that was the best All Black side I have seen. If you had to ask the question surely you were not certain yourselves.

The answer is no, a long way from it. They were missing too many important players. Tony Woodcock was injured, Mealamu rested, Dan Carter, their best player, and Conrad Smith, their second most important player, an important distinction, were not playing either.

Richie McCaw's luminous brilliance can never be underestimated. They were short Ali Williams, Brad Thorne, Piri Weepu and Jerome Kaino from their World Cup-winning 23 as well.

That said, even the casual observer will have noticed that the All Blacks don't do transitions. It was a very good side that went out against Ireland. They played with balance, something of a mix between resourcefulness and ruthlessness, temperance and ambition, hunger and patience. And the indomitable quality that makes them out as special: they never give up.

They were short on quality in some areas, particularly the front row. And, in truth, their bench of the Franks brothers and Dane Coles made a marked difference. Liam Messam, too, is a serious proposition, and that injection of quality told. Still, it was new to see seasoned Test players like McCaw, Read and Whitelock blowing really heavy from the 30th minute on. The perfect season would have to be earned. Saturn's fifth moon was in its third orbital phase. Ireland, for some reason, had clicked and this would be a contest.

I'm told Ireland will learn from last Sunday's experience. Ho hum. Maybe a thought from Emo Philips' mind would help: "When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked him to forgive me."

The match was won and lost, surprisingly, in the last few minutes. The question you have to ask is what would the All Blacks have done if they were in our position? Our chances were compounded by bad fortune with the loss of Brian O'Driscoll for the last quarter. He got bounced when he ran square into Brody Retallick's whalebone elbows. What happened next is no less disturbing just because I have seen this happen to the same player about a dozen times.

Charlie Faumuina took the ball on after that tackle and as O'Driscoll attempted to adjust to the position of the new ruck his left leg simply went from underneath him and he fell over. He got up and stared inanely into the next ruck. I think for the first time in his career O'Driscoll made the call himself. His selflessness for the cause will undoubtedly have ramifications later on; nobody could question his desire or heart. O'Driscoll at this stage is more than just a mere player. He can be characterised as a quality, a grade, a value. His absence from the field of play was the reason Ireland lost.

Go back and ask the question again: what would the All Blacks have done?

Maybe I am crediting him with too much sangfroid and people must take cognisance of how disjointed and frenzied the last few minutes of a Test match can be. O'Driscoll is a catalyst, a difference-maker. He sees things before they happen and that is why he steps up and makes critical interventions at crucial times. He has done this all the way through his career.

Ireland went eight phases in trying to run the clock down to close out the game. Ever since Munster adopted this ploy in the close-out of the Heineken final against Toulouse – it was a really ugly, dreadful end to the game – you felt like it was a Roberto Duran 'No Mas' moment. Toulouse just couldn't get near the ball. The IRB said never again and they instructed referees to be heavy on sand-bagging or going off feet to seal the ball in a close-out. They also put in play a five-second 'use it' limit for scrum halves to move the ball instead of leaving it there for 20 seconds.

It is very hard to go a dozen rucks without somebody giving away a penalty. Sooner or later they will find one and ping you whether it is warranted or not. Somebody had to take a decision because you knew that Nigel Owens was going to whistle, particularly after he gave a warning.

What would the All Blacks have done? They would have thrown the ball out along the line and taken the ruck on the tramlines. Risky, maybe, in the endgame but it would have broken Nigel Owens' perception that this was a clock-killing exercise. A bit like rugby league with the six-tackle rule – six tackles and you kick. If a referee gets a sense of a side going left and right of the ruck without making progress or, more importantly, looking to make no progress and there is very little chance of competition at the tackle zone, then his natural inclination is to try and even up the game and give it to the side who need to try and score/play.

O'Driscoll, with his instinct and experience, might have been the one to call for the ball as he usually does and change the point of attack to get the referee thinking that they were trying to play some football. And suddenly the arbiter has another six tackles to count. The penalty against Jack McGrath was always going to happen. Owens could have let it go but pinged the next sand-bagger in the next contact.

Emo's philosophy becomes more relevant in the 100-second passage of play which led to the All Blacks' try at the death. A five-point margin meant a penalty was of no value to the All Blacks. Ireland could steal the bike and pray for forgiveness. But Ireland played by the rules and prayed for the bike.

I understand that Ireland were out on their feet, but if McCaw had been playing for Ireland he would have gone in to the breakdown and killed the ball – killed it stone dead. He might have given away a penalty, he might have been carded (not possible) but he would have stopped the All Blacks' momentum dead. It would have meant that having got traction and momentum with their wide game, they would have had to try and go again – very hard to do. They went to the extreme of the pitch four times. They did so unhindered by one Irish player who never thought of stopping their progress illegally. That is what New Zealand do if they have to. So too Australia and South Africa. It doesn't cost them a thought.

I saw Irish players obligingly rolling out of the way to get back onside. We played that 100 seconds like gentlemen, we should have played it like gurriers. It was one of the few gaps in O'Driscoll's CV. I am sure that in the helter-skelter he alone on his team would have had the sangfroid to go in and do something, legal or illegal, to stop New Zealand. It didn't happen.

That said, that try was annoyingly the best try scored at Lansdowne Road ever. It hasn't been fully appreciated because of the damage it did to us all. One thing which I'm still trying to get my head around is how did Kieran Read end up on one wing for one of their attacking forays and appear on the other wing on the next attacking play? Are there two of him? He is the best player in the world and his quick hands to Julian Savea in the lead-up to Ben Franks' try were beyond comprehension. I had to slow-mo the play three times to find out that he did indeed catch and pass in the one movement under horrendous pressure.

One other thing we should note is that 19-0 is nothing. I have seen All Blacks teams score 14 points in 45 seconds. I watched New Zealand score 21 points in 13 minutes against Ireland last summer in Waikato. At 22-17 down with 65 minutes gone, Jimmy the Greek wouldn't have been laying off that bet.

Ireland were very good and the nation commends and respects their performance. They had nothing left to give.

Can Ireland meet with triumph and disaster and treat those imposters just the same? The 6 Nations? Scotland don't do the Haka, there is no fear that they will beat us 60-0 and most of the crowd will be finishing their pints after the game has started. No fear factor – different dynamic.

Sunday Independent

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