Thursday 22 March 2018

Neil Francis: French have always been dirty but this was really disturbing

Johnny Sexton after his collision with France’s Mathieu Bastareaud
Johnny Sexton after his collision with France’s Mathieu Bastareaud
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Last Saturday's Test match between the French and Irish nations was so full of impurity it is hard to know where to start. Among all this imperfection was a beacon of light and a performance of such bounty that it begs now to redefine the role of a position on the field.

Tommy Bowe, I sensed had a good game on Saturday - how good wasn't evident until I reviewed the game. A flawless performance in terms of obeying the coaches' strategy and realistically the difference between the sides.

The redefinition of the role a winger plays is worthwhile. The stats can be very misleading because they have Bowe down for four runs with 20 metres gained.

However, he gained an additional 150 metres (25, 15, 25, 15, 30, 15 and 25 metres) chasing down kicks that put up for him by Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Such was the yield from chasing box-kicks, up-and-unders and kick-offs, why bother trying to run with the ball?

Every time Bowe chased the ball he either regained or put the French cover under serious pressure. It was an astonishing aerial performance.

Rob Kearney too had an exceptional evening in the stratosphere - regains and thumping tackles for 40, 40, 15, 40 and nine metres, leaving a total of 144 to augment 49m with the ball in hand.

I have worked out these figures myself, based on the position where the kicker launches to the position where it lands and is either regained or the receiver is put under serious pressure.

Scott Spedding was made to look what he was - an average South African provincial player with a big boot and a French nationality complex. Maxime Medard would not have looked so bad.

Ireland have decided to kick, and that manifests in the way both sets of halves played. Rory Kockott and Camille Lopez kicked the ball eight times between them - Morgan Parra when he came on didn't kick the ball once.

Murray and Sexton kicked the ball 22 times; the ball put up by the Irish was so accurate and the chase so good that it was the difference between winning and losing. The visitors' kick-chase was lamentable - all of the Irish receivers fielded unbothered by the French cavalry.

Such is Joe Schmidt's obsession with repetition of skills that Ireland have become a very good side in this area. Let's see if England coach Stuart Lancaster can negate their effectiveness in the air. The problem for England is that Schmidt will change the emphasis ever so slightly for Saturday week.


The Irish kick-off strategy was very clever against France and even a big, rangy ball player like Damien Chouly couldn't cope with the precision of Sexton's kicks nor Bowe's ability to launch and time his jump to perfection. Ireland always got back into the game immediately after conceding points.

Maybe Schmidt sees the value of GAA players. Apart from Bowe and Kearney, Robbie Henshaw also is good in the air and he too had his moments including a thunderous hit on Spedding.

Simon Zebo has his qualities and is better under the high ball than he is given credit for but he didn't challenge effectively for ball in the air when it was put up to Yoann Huget and this will need to improve - particularly as Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are very proficient in the sky. I don't think I'm being unfair here.

The French eventually began to react (illegally) to Ireland's dominance in this area, and on Murray's last box-kick in the 76th minute Lopez just shepherded Bowe out of the picture to give Remi Tales a free catch - referee Wayne Barnes shrugged the play on impassively as if nothing ever happened.

This brings us on to the tenor in which the match was played last Saturday. The French were a disgrace in the manner and spirit in which they played the game. It shows you how much they have lost their way.

The French are and always have been a dirty side - particularly in Paris. What they got up to on Saturday was disturbing because it wasn't just one or two players, and I don't quite understand how we can be so obsequious and understanding about it.

There were quite a number of incidents. Chouly tried to take Sexton's head off in the first minute. Thierry Dusautoir elbowed Sexton in the face at a ruck in the 14th minute. Then there was Pascal Pape's knee into Jamie Heaslip's back in the 54th minute. Yoann Maestri smashed Murray in the face in the 73rd minute.

Then there were the usual knees and shoulders into prone bodies in rucks and tackles. It is clear that France were trying to impose themselves physically and trying to intimidate Ireland.

Barnes, quite apart from ruining the game as a spectacle, missed a huge amount of dirty play - what sanction for him for his sub-standard performance?

What about Pape? I am a great believer in natural justice - if Heaslip is out for four weeks, I feel it only right and proper that the perpetrator should spend twice the amount of time out on the sidelines as his victim.


I also believe a monetary fine (say €10,000) made payable to the victim would concentrate the mind wonderfully on whether he would lead with the knee again.

Ten grand I feel carries so much more weight than a handshake after the final whistle or a risible apology on Twitter which his management team probably told him to do prior to his hearing yesterday and today.

It is obvious that Sexton was a marked man and it is shameful that in a game of rugby union, fellow players would try and harm someone who has just recovered from a 12-week absence because of concussion.

On Saturday night somebody in the medical/psychology field made a point to me about the clash of heads between Sexton and Bastareaud in the 44th minute which drew blood. This was one of four dangerous contacts between the players.

The point was that Bastareaud had closed his eyes two to three feet before his head hit Sexton's. The issue here is that at that distance it is too soon to be a reflex action - a blink reflex happens at about six inches. The inference being that at two or three feet out you already knew what you were about to do.

There was a darkness and a primal edge to the way France conducted themselves and because there was no rebuke or worthwhile sanction by the people in charge it will happen again in October.

Our game is going down the toilet and those charged with its governance stand by handing out toilet paper.

Irish Independent

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