Sunday 24 March 2019

Neil Francis: 'Wales sold us out for 30 pieces of silver - now, it's time for revenge'

Even now we still ask - is Gatland a lucky general or is he good? And so we await what he comes up with in Cardiff.

Rivalry reborn: Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland will be determined not to lose their final Six Nations duel on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Rivalry reborn: Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland will be determined not to lose their final Six Nations duel on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

An hour after the 15-15 draw in the deciding Test in Auckland in the Lions series against New Zealand and Warren Gatland arrives to the press conference wearing a clown's red nose.

The nose elicits a ripple of subdued laughter but Gatland doesn't carry it off and he furtively puts the nose back in his pocket and attends to the crushing dullness of the post-match interviews. To go to a shop in advance of the third Test and buy the nose told you everything about Gatland's mindset - who would be that confident playing away to New Zealand in a decider?

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Gatland is a very human fella. The 'New Zealand Herald' had put a cartoon on its front page of Gatland dressed up as a clown. He couldn't let it go. In a land where irony has to be explained, a petit peu of humour would to most New Zealanders be met with disdain. It was the moment Gatland's name was taken out of the hat for the All Blacks job.

Steve Hansen or even Joe Schmidt wouldn't countenance wearing a clown's nose but then they are different men. In the end, Wazza explained to all, quite rightly, that the Lions would be looking on the drawn series as a win - based on the fact that the New Zealanders' failure to win the series at home was seen as just that.

The stresses and torsion of playing any series in New Zealand will inevitably grate on you as the whole population will tell you that you are s**t and you are going to get thumped.

A draw of any kind is unsatisfactory but it was Gatland's finest moment. Everyone, including myself, was certain that it would be a three-to-zip series - especially when the All Blacks put 30 points on the Lions in the first Test and it looked like they were just limbering up. Nobody can be exact about what effect Sonny Bill Williams' sending-off had but you would have to say that if the All Black centre had stayed on the pitch for the full 80 New Zealand would undoubtedly have won the series. He didn't and they didn't.

Even now we still ask - is he a lucky general or is he good? The second Test encapsulated what Warren does best. On the back foot from a loss, he tinkered with his team, injected some psychological resilience and got them to produce an 80 of purposeful effort and they walked the walk. They had no business winning that match - but they did.

And so we wait to see what he comes up with. Gatland has just about got it right in every game so far but expectation may be too big a burden for his side. Gatland thrives when he unseats superior teams - like England - this season. Wales think that they are a better side than Ireland and always think that way. The team he least wanted to see on the day Wales absolutely expect to win their Grand Slam was Ireland.

This match, quite apart from the prize of a Grand Slam, is pregnant with implication - high amongst this is 'who is the best coach in the world?' The point here about Steve Hansen is that you just never know how good or bad a coach you are when you are in charge of the All Blacks. They have been winning for over 100 years now.

Coaching Ireland and Wales to number 2 and 3 in the world tells you all about the respective coaching abilities of Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland.

I figure we will be seeing a lot of our Celtic cousins. This Saturday aside we meet Wales away (August 31) and home (September 7) in the pre-World Cup friendlies. This is a precursor to meeting at the World Cup in the semi-final on October 27 in Yokohama. This on the basis of us topping our group and beating South Africa in the quarters and Wales topping their group, beating Australia en route and then overcoming Argentina in the quarters. All very achievable.

It is worth noting that in their current run of 13 consecutive victories Wales have not played New Zealand. It is significant too that under Gatland's stewardship he is an underwhelming 11 and 2 against Australia, 14 and 4 against South Africa and 11 and zip against the All Blacks - the wins though against South Africa and Australia came in the last season or so. Gatland will get you in the end! Schmidt only has a losing record against England and is delicately poised at three-all and a draw with Gatland. Schmidt has an enviable record against the big boys 6-4 against Australia, 5-3 against South Africa and 2-all against New Zealand - and that should be 3-1 against New Zealand.

We are playing Wales hopefully four times this year and right now the next match is the most important. We really do owe them one for that 22-10 defeat in Auckland in the 2011 World Cup.

That loss was more abject and deflationary than the Argentina loss in 2015. To spoil their Grand Slam would only be fit and proper. I think also the Rugby World Cup 2023 sell-out to South Africa also needs to be addressed. You can say it was business or you can say it was treachery but it gave us a clear indication of what the Welsh thought of us.

When the Welsh were looking for votes for their World Cup in 1999, Ireland were behind them. When it came to reciprocation - 30 pieces of silver - sold! That has to have consequences.

I suspect that Gatland hasn't got over the way the IRFU sacked him and I feel he has always been a little bit perkier and a tad more self-satisfied when he manages to beat Ireland. A Grand Slam is a Grand Slam but to beat Ireland in the final game will be the glacé on top of the cherry on top of the cake.

I figure, though, that the two former rugby league defence coaches will have the greatest say in how this match is decided. The redoubtable Shaun Edwards and the ultra-competitive Andy Farrell will have to play poker to gain the tiniest advantage.

Wales have garnered no bonus points and have scored the same number of tries as France and Italy (9) but have only leaked six tries. A kicking game where you play phases before you kick to move Wales back three is key and if Liam Williams is playing - he has been made to look good by uncontested ball too often - this has to stop. The bookies just about fancy the home side and 25/1 for the draw might not be a bad bet.

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