Monday 16 September 2019

Neil Francis: 'Light on leadership and short on depth, Ireland's prospects rest on keeping half-backs fit'

Smiles away: Joey Carbery and Bundee Aki in relaxed mood on their departure for Japan at Dublin Airport yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Smiles away: Joey Carbery and Bundee Aki in relaxed mood on their departure for Japan at Dublin Airport yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

So now we wait.

Ireland's last half of preparation at the Aviva showed they were a good deal more concise than they have been all summer. Accuracy and efficiency does come with game-time. Apart from Jack Carty's Premier League goalkeeper side-swipe of a cross-kick in the second half, everything looked as it should.

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Ireland are 10/1 to win the Cup behind South Africa 9/2, England at 4/1 and New Zealand 5/4 which is just about bang on. Keep your money in your pocket, though - we may know what to do in the Heineken Cup but at international level, well, we still are not a team that can play cup rugby consistently well. The Six Nations is a league after all.

In the coming showpiece, the blight of an occasional bad day at the office is an affliction that we just don't seem to be able to inoculate ourselves from.

On a more encouraging note, the squad left Dublin Airport during the week but there were no Hallelujah choruses that this is the best team we have ever sent or not even the best prepared. Joe Schmidt may have had four years to reflect on a crushing loss to Argentina in Cardiff but like all mortals he is still a prisoner of circumstance. Let us also remind ourselves that Argie side in 2015 was a really good team - they had us for quality and confidence all across the pitch.

Despite assurances and numerous newspaper articles, there is no great depth to this squad and the 2019 version is a long way down on the quality of the 2015 and 2011 versions.

Despite the fantastic win against Australia and France in the pool stages in those World Cups, Ireland did not have the depth or the cup-winning mentality to get past the quarter-finals - why on earth would we consider we have a chance when our depth and quality are a good distance off our last two squads and the knowledge of who we have in the quarters? Both New Zealand and South Africa are considerably stronger than Wales (2011) and Argentina (2015).

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Injury is just one of those intangibles when it comes to World Cups - particularly when it comes to Irish involvement. We are in Donald Rumsfeld territory here and we can only point to knowing that two of the Irish squad are injured and yet are still being brought to Japan. Joey Carbery and Keith Earls we know are injured.

It is the Carlsberg conundrum here - it is probably the right call to take the gamble on them. Injury has hampered the players' training and preparation, which is not really something to concern Joe unless of course one of those players is called Devin Toner. Neither Earls nor Carbery could be fully match-fit and if they get injured again, Ireland are in trouble.

Earls and Carbery are the only players that we know for certain are injured - there could be at least three more - and injury can and will hit Ireland harder than any other contender. A full deck and Ireland can contend.

Ireland look like their pack is beginning to awaken from their slumbers. You can't win this tournament without a really good one. Halves too are priceless. Grant Fox and David Kirk, Michael Lynagh and Nick Farr Jones and Joel Stransky and Joost van der Westhuizen - it ain't 'Strictly Come Dancing' pairings. These are legendary partnerships who led their teams to World Cup glory. The last edition of Aaron Smith and Dan Carter shows you the standard required.

We are light in this area. We are light because two years ago we did have the best half-back pairing in the world. That is not the case anymore. On form, Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard, who led South Africa to the Rugby Championship, are the world's best.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have been injured consistently since the 2017 Lions tour. The 2018 Grand Slam a short-term oasis of rehabilitation and game-time. Our travelling halves of Sexton, Murray, Carbery, Luke McGrath and Carty are a good bit down on the 2015 group of Murray, Sexton, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan and Paddy Jackson. They are also a good bit down on Sexton, Murray, O'Gara, Reddan and Isaac Boss.

McGrath, Carbery and Carty have to play against Russia and Samoa and will probably have to finish against Scotland and Japan. Carbery's injury profile has been pitiful since he joined Munster. Any expert I've asked doesn't fancy his chances of recovering and playing well after ankle ligament surgery.

We wait for Sexton and Murray to re-ignite and lead this team. All of Ireland's big wins in the last several seasons or so have been underpinned by world-class performances by the pair of them. Leaders of men - which brings us on to another area of fragility.

In 2015, Ireland in their critical pool game against France had six leaders well placed in their team. Paul O'Connell, Rory Best, Jamie Heaslip, Peter O'Mahony and Seán O'Brien in the pack and Sexton and Jared Payne in the back line. Almost too many chiefs and not enough Indians. When you have men of such calibre who know how it goes and what to do at the time of asking you have a significant advantage.

When O'Connell, O'Brien, O'Mahony, Sexton and Payne were unavailable the following week against Argentina the game was up.

Ireland really only have Best, Sexton and O'Mahony in a leadership group and it is a matter of regret that none of them are playing close to their best rugby at the moment and there are some calls to replace Best and O'Mahony which would, in my view, be misplaced. I think O'Mahony is a big-game player and his abilities are essential if Ireland are going to beat Scotland and compete with South Africa.

Best is indispensable at this juncture and his presence is required in the preamble, the dressing-room and at least the first 40 minutes of any important game.

Here we are, a week or so out, and the realisation dawns that we are light on leadership, short on depth again even after four years' planning and we are praying yet again that our five half-backs can rediscover themselves and plot this team's destiny against ever-increasing odds.

Irish Independent

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