Thursday 19 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'An explanation is of little value and a response seems unattainable'

England’s Manu Tuilagi (C) celebrates scoring a try with Tom Curry Joe Cokanasiga. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
England’s Manu Tuilagi (C) celebrates scoring a try with Tom Curry Joe Cokanasiga. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I watched Mary Poppins prior to kick-off yesterday. It was more entertaining than the Sky pre-match analysis. The house in which Mary Poppins was governess was overrun by an army of chimney sweeps and Mister Banks, the man of the house, demanded an explanation!

"Mary Poppins what is the meaning of this outrage?"

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"I beg your pardon?"

"Would you be so good as to explain all of this?"

"First of all I would like to make one thing quite clear . . . I never explain anything!"

I did not wait around to hear Joe Schmidt explain this performance away. Irrespective of how Ireland perform against Wales in the coming weeks the squad were holed below the waterline at Twickenham yesterday. England didn't hold back and neither will I.

We understand that Ireland are two weeks behind England in terms of preparation but is that the best excuse that we can come up with? Over the course of the last few seasons you always got a sense that Ireland did not fear England, but that raw ingredient was missing yesterday. Maybe Ireland visualised what would be served up to them before the match began.

That is why the scale of this loss is so worrying. Real courage is when you know you are licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter. Ireland lacked the right attitude and showed no courage in their performance yesterday, something I have not seen in a long time from an Irish side under Joe Schmidt. It set a dangerous precedent a month out from their World Cup adventure.

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Ireland's World Cup credentials and the Loch Ness Monster have something in common - there is a strong suspicion that neither exists.

This victory will fortify and nourish England. They garner confidence and enthusiasm from performances in a different way than we do and this match will set them up for a very strong run for the big prize.

For Ireland, even if they won all four warm-up matches, that would never entirely convince you of anything. The difficulty here is that you can also fail to recover yourselves, a performance like that can stall everything and all momentum and enthusiasm can die on the vine.

It was galling yesterday - long before the final whistle blew - to see England players offering to help Irish players up off the turf and worse still to see Irish players accept that helping hand. It was a curiously bloodless encounter and a lot of the Irish players won't be sore or bruised after the game because they simply did not compete or put their bodies on the line.

After a gutless performance you start looking for faults, weaknesses and limitations. Just how good were England? That is the only mitigating factor here, because England were powerful and pragmatic and they knew they had Ireland's number a few minutes into the game.

If you take an objective look at the pernicious influence of Eddie Jones you can see that he has just got his blend right. It is true that he has quality in every sector and he can pick from 60 or 70 international class players. I think he has stumbled upon the right mix in his mid five and if he can get the misfiring Ben Youngs to kick properly and spice up the quality of his passing, then England can beat anyone.

It has been obvious for a number of seasons now that Billy Vunipola is the best number 8 in the world by a huge margin. On his day he is practically unplayable and if your tactical gambit is to try and rush him and chop tackle him before he gets up a head of steam your biggest problem will be just exactly where he pops up on the pitch.

England use him cleverly and he has been used even as an auxiliary scrumhalf at lineout time where he can throw pinpoint 30-metre passes to those outside him as he did in the Champions Cup back in May. His skill levels, his ball handling and his football intuition are even superior to those of Kieran Read. In economic terms, our economists class a recession as two consecutive quarters of negative growth in GDP. CJ Stander has not played a decent game of rugby in six quarters and was practically anonymous yesterday. A change has to be made here because he has become one-paced.

England, by playing Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, took the Pocock/Hooper route to getting things done. Both opensides are only just getting back to their best form, particularly Underhill, but you just know that there is further room for improvement and England's triumvirate at 6, 7 and 8 could lead them on to a World Cup victory.

Our back row, in stark contrast, seems to have no cohesion, dynamism or flair. They were beaten out the gap yesterday at the breakdown and the sad thing is there are no replacements of the requisite quality for Schmidt to bring in to mix things up. The only Irish player with the remotest chance of being selected in an English back row is Dan Leavy and he was in a gym far from Twickenham working away to get his leg back in proper shape.

I am as bemused as Steve Hansen is on how the world rankings work. Quite how Ireland could possibly have been ranked as the number one side in the world I think is beyond anyone who was in attendance at Twickenham yesterday or watching on television.

Ireland, though, were number one in the world at losing their own lineouts. They managed to do so in a variety of ways, not all of it down to rust. Ireland were also number one in the world yesterday for missing tackles, they missed 34 out of 108 - I cannot remember a worse defensive performance and some of the players who stuck a hand out or simply did not commit or rushed up out of the line or stood square when they should have been drifting will want to remind themselves who they represent - if they get the chance.

Yesterday the race went to the swift and the battle went to the strong and once again Ireland have reminded us of their inability to deal with the power game and the rush defence, something they were able to cope with two years ago when they were able to see a side as strong as the Springboks off by 38 points to 3.

Eight-try thumpings at this juncture are simply not acceptable and yes, Scotland did beat France yesterday but the Scots' situation in Nice last week just never looked as bleak as Ireland's cause looks now.

An explanation is of little value and a response seems pretty much unattainable.

Is this how it ends?

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