Saturday 7 December 2019

George Hook: French defeat was an insult to entertainment - Joe Schmidt is living a charmed life

Devin Toner reaches for a restart during yesterday’s match at the Stade de France. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile
Devin Toner reaches for a restart during yesterday’s match at the Stade de France. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s Dave Kearney is tackled by Johnathan Danty, left, and Teddy Thomas.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

George Hook

On Saturday in Paris, Ireland lost another match that they should have won and if Twickenham goes as expected, Joe Schmidt's team will be in a dogfight to avoid the wooden spoon.

The reasons for the failure are manifold depending on your perspective. The refereeing was average but not as bad as the home support would have us believe; the injury list before and during the game was horrendous; and the scrum imploded.

There is an alternative scenario. This team is incapable of converting territory and possession into points. In the two second halves against Wales and France, Ireland managed the sum total of one penalty goal. In the two first halves, despite almost complete dominance, the team totted up 19 points, including one try from a yard.

When Warren Gatland criticised Ireland for being too narrow in the World Cup warm-up games, it was dismissed as the usual mind games from that source. The competition itself confirmed the accuracy of that assessment. The reality is that Schmidt has delivered a conservative game-plan with a group of regimented players and compounded the problem by abject selection.

Against the French, his team achieved not a single line break. Yes, nothing, zero, none. The players, playing to instruction, offloaded just once. Schmidt's mantra is defence and concentration. Judged by that yardstick, the players in green missed 17 tackles and conceded 13 penalties.


In the Bible, Proverbs Chapter 9 Verse 1 suggests there are seven pillars to leading our lives. Ireland were abject in the four pillars of playing winning rugby. Schmidt's tenure in charge of the national team has been notable for the complete absence of analysis by the media. He has led a charmed life.

It has been forgotten that Michael Cheika handed him a winning team at Leinster and the work of Eddie O'Sullivan and Declan Kidney gave Ireland the winning habit, with three Triple Crowns and one Grand Slam. The RWC and this year's Six Nations represent the team that Joe built and the results are there for all to see.

The comments from the analysts before the game about French coach Guy Noves were distinctly ageist. He was too old at 62, they opined and his lack of a tracksuit demonstrated that he was out of touch with the modern era. Incredibly, the man with the best rugby CV in all of Europe was dismissed as a doddering senior citizen soon to be an OAP.

In truth, he completely out-thought and out-selected Schmidt. He used the extra week after the Italy game to fix a defence that was expected to be porous. In a selection masterstroke, he held back his frontline props until the second half when they demolished the Irish scrum and contributed to his team having 60pc of the possession in the final 40 minutes. It was one of the bravest moves imaginable and was predicated by his certainty that Ireland could not and would not build a big lead.

The post-match consensus was that France were poor. Perhaps, but they were better than their opponents which was all that mattered. They had a better game-plan, a better coach and most of all a better scrum. In contrast to Ireland, France made four line breaks, offloaded 17 times, conceded eight penalties and missed just six tackles.

For the game, there is a glaring problem that must be addressed. Saturday's game was an insult to entertainment and even if Ireland had managed to come up with a match-winning score in the dying moments, it would have done little to gloss over what was a spectacle based on brutality and attrition. Rugby is in real danger of losing its audience.

Questions have to be asked about whether players are rushed back too soon after injury. Sean O'Brien and Jonathan Sexton left the field because of a recurrence of injures previously incurred. The result for the flanker may be another long lay-off, but anybody that has a care for the out-half must have been appalled that he again failed to finish a match.

This week there was a furore over whether or not there was a head injury in a schools game. Yet in front of a million people, for the second time in six days a young man on doctor's orders was forced to leave the field of play, with the same injury to the head/neck area.


The powers that be are in denial. Let us not also forget that this weekend international rugby was played by women and boys under 20.

Society has changed over the centuries. For the entertainment of the masses, gladiators no longer fight in arenas, bears are no longer baited and pit bulls no longer fight. I found it difficult to watch what the commentators loosely call the "physicality" of the game.

My mind wandered to a time a long way in the future when a relic of a stadium overrun with weeds in Lansdowne Road is a stop on the tourist trail, where the guide remarks, it is hard to believe, but young men used to beat each other up for the edification of a baying crowd.

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