Monday 21 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'Time to find Best alternative'

Gatland assessed his options in Rome and Schmidt must follow suit with Japan in mind

‘If close to the World Cup the penny drops with Schmidt that the captain is no longer first choice, then days like this will be seen to have been wasted.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘If close to the World Cup the penny drops with Schmidt that the captain is no longer first choice, then days like this will be seen to have been wasted.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

France. Is there anything as unhinged in modern rugby as the way the French go about their business? Fourteen fully professional teams in the Top 14 supported by another 16 largely pro teams in ProD2 - the template you'd think for producing a national side who contested meaningfully for Six Nations and World Cup honours. Football may be France's first love, but rugby is big business with a senior male playing population of 110,000, second only to England. And to Ireland's cost they will be hosting the 2023 World Cup.

So here we are at the first pause for breath in this season's Championship, shaking our heads and wondering how in the opening two rounds France have surpassed themselves in awfulness. It may have a comic element, but ultimately it's bad for business. In the last five tournaments France's record reads fourth, third, fifth, fourth and fourth. In the five before that they did manage one title, but they also bounced around the bottom end, including a sixth-place finish in 2013.

On this weekend in 1992, England went to do their duty in Parc des Princes. Ireland fans will remember that ground grimly, though at least they were spared the grief of having to face the amphetamine-charged nutters who used to explode out of the blue changing room there in the 1980s. Instead they could watch from the safety of the stands while the boys in green - and it was men against boys in those days - were coursed about the place.

Whether by chance or design the acoustics in that place present as a vortex. It all came flooding back when Ireland's disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign finished up there. So not only could we never beat the locals at this seat of French power but the Argies did us there as well.

If the '80s saw France at their scariest in the Parc then things hadn't exactly gone soft by the '90s. England's Brian Moore, fun-sized but always angry and utterly fearless, used to start stoking the fire in the media from the Thursday in a Championship week.

By then England had put together a forward pack that would cheerfully go toe to toe with anyone, and never consider a backward step. On that February day in 1992, France were looking at their third home defeat in a row to England if they couldn't produce something special. In the violence of their effort they lost front rowers Gregoire Lascube and Vincent Moscato to red cards. Game over.

Rugby was unhinged back then, a game with different laws and no electronic monitoring. At the post-match dinners the France and England teams would have precious little interaction. Le Crunch didn't begin to describe it.

The players of that era must look with disbelief at what has become of the fixture. In a different game now where you can't win on physical intimidation alone you have to have a few other ideas. But the French, with their hapless coach Jacques Brunel at the wheel - and their domestic game stuffed with players ineligible for France - lurch from one ditch into another. The only issue is if the player revolt will happen before St Patrick's Day, or in the run-up to the World Cup.

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How appropriate then that Brunel's predecessor is in the throes of a legal action against the French federation (FFR) over his dismissal in December 2017. Guy Noves' employment tribunal kicks off this week in his home town, Toulouse. He got bumped from the national coaching gig on the back of wretched results - seven wins from 21 Tests - and the charge that in his tenure of less than two years he never opened the door for a chat to the good folk of the Top 14, from whence he had come as the longest-serving club coach in the history of the French game. "When (Bernard) Laporte was coach (of France) I didn't see him at Toulouse, even though the club was the main provider of players to the French national team," Noves said over a year ago.

Noves will claim that FFR president Laporte had him in the crosshairs from the moment he took over in head office. Noves is looking for €2.9m in back money, overtime and whatever else. The only saving grace for the FFR is that this carbuncle wasn't coming to a public head 15 months ago when they were putting on the full-court press to get their RWC 2023 bid over the line.

Given that they have been a shambles for so long, can they get themselves sorted out by then? Perhaps. Their regulations on the number of France-qualified players per Top 14 squad at last make sense. But it will be that 2023 World Cup at least before they get to reap the benefits of that.

For now they must look at the England makeover and weep. What was a healthy glow in the aftermath of the Ireland win two weeks ago may have lost some of its radiance with the injuries to Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje - if you put the pair of them in a starting line-up with Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola then you have a third of the job done before you figure out how you're going to go about the rest - but even so they have a big wind behind them now.

And in coach Eddie Jones they have the gift that keeps on giving. Jones's mixture of the disingenuous with the absurd is a subplot in any race he runs.

In the press conference after the Ireland game he set the dial to talk-down mode, and claimed the result had no relevance to the World Cup. Then last week, to kick-start the countdown to the most poisonous fixture in the Championship - Wales versus England in Cardiff - he warned that his lads would need to find an extra gear because this is the best team Wales have ever had.

You could almost hear Warren Gatland groaning at the offence the Welsh fans would feel over this piss-take. Gatland has got lots right in reaching this point in the tournament with two away wins against a backdrop of injury. Their resilience in the rain in Paris was exemplary. The plan to turn the gap between that and the Italy Test in Rome into a mini-tour looked perfect, as did his willingness to rotate his team selection.

True, the budget in Rome was for five points, but two wins on the road - and 25 players used as starters - has hugely positive implications for the squad in both the Six Nations and the World Cup. You can't put a price on the benefits of players feeling they are actually part of the operation rather than paid spectators.

Joe Schmidt will have watched the Welsh experience in Rome and figured out the implications for Ireland, who are next up on that mission. Italy's late comeback made it a bit sweaty for Wales but it doesn't have to be that way. Firstly, the injury picture is beginning to improve with Iain Henderson making his return for Ulster on Friday night and Kieran Marmion doing the same for Connacht yesterday. Secondly, Wales were operating on a different timeline so with back-to-back games and a lot of travel Gatland felt the need to freshen things up.

So Schmidt will look at the week off before Rome and the week off after Rome and reckon he can leave a chunk of the team unchanged. Factor in the return of a few heads who would have featured in Edinburgh if fit - Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw - plus Henderson and Marmion, and he has enough altering done to tick the boxes.

That would facilitate the retention of Conor Murrray and Johnny Sexton at half-back, neither of whom is in the form of his life. So John Cooney would be turfed to accommodate Marmion on the bench - the line would be that two match-day involvements for the Ulster player will have enhanced his development. With CJ Stander out until the France game at least, it allows more time for Jack Conan. And Joey Carbery's earlier than planned entry to the fray in Murrayfield, on top of his full-time gig at 10 with Munster, allows Schmidt to present as chalk and cheese the Carbery of 2017/'18 versus the 2018/'19 model.

The biggest issue regarding personnel is around the captain, however. From Rory Best to Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell to Rob Herring it seems each of them is missing something Schmidt wants, but Best is best placed. The most interesting elements in all of this are that Leinster don't reckon Cronin is a glass half-full, while Ulster don't see in Herring what everyone else saw in the South African when he excelled on the tour to Australia last summer.

Starting Best in Rome would be a mistake. Beating Italy is not going to depend on whether or not he starts, but if close to the World Cup the penny drops with Schmidt that the captain is no longer first choice then days like this will be seen to have been wasted. It's hard to pick Herring if he's not getting a start for Ulster, but the risk-reward ratio in running with Cronin and Scannell is attractive. Benching Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong would be in the same category.

Compared to what France are going through these are First World problems. Schmidt doesn't have to lose the plot in shuffling the deck for Italy but neither does he have to play all the same cards, bar a few that fell off the table. You'd dread a scenario where he does too little and then presents the challenge of Italy as being too much.

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