Friday 17 November 2017

Neil Francis: Hymn to simplicity lacks the high notes

Joe Schmidt's risk-free approach makes Irish very hard to beat, says Neil Francis

14 February 2015; Ireland's Rob Kearney celebrates at the blow of final wistle. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
14 February 2015; Ireland's Rob Kearney celebrates at the blow of final wistle. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I could have sworn it said Ireland v France in the RBS Six Nations at 5pm at the Aviva Stadium. I figure that most people who patronise the game had the same thing written on their ticket.

Instead we got the Wayne Barnes Show. I am certain now that this man is like the rooster who believes the sun rises to hear him crow. There were 25 penalties awarded in yesterday's game; maybe he could have awarded another dozen but Barnes gave a performance that was so lacking in empathy of the demands and needs of the players and indeed the 50,000 who turned up to watch the game never mind the millions watching on television.

Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is attended to by team doctor Dr. Eanna Falvey and referee Wayne Barnes following a blood injury during the second half. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

As a spectacle, any kind of fluency that came into the game Barnes called it to a halt immediately. Yes, there were a lot of obvious penalties yesterday but the paying public can watch better rugby in European club competitions. So far in the Six Nations we have had five shit games. We may get a throw-about in Murrayfield this afternoon but that's the very least we deserve.

The only consolation in yesterday's featureless and sterile game was that at least it was a contest. How Ireland managed to turn it into one is something that is still puzzling me.

Quite often the reasons for the winning and losing of an international match often overlap. The first thing to point out about yesterday was that both teams looked far better without the ball and one try said it all.

There were a number of memorable moments. Both teams played at the same speed - flat out. The truth has to be told: France have regressed to the point of ridicule. Their heritage has been betrayed and this was graphically illustrated when they went chasing the game in the last 15 minutes. Their backs are unable to observe the fundamentals of the passing game. None of them are able to put the ball out in front of its intended receiver. The timing of their passing is askew and they do not know when to pass or to hold on.

None of them can judge depth in the line and none of them know when to time a run or whether to stay flat. None of them have any sense of spatial awareness and they do not seem to be able to see any of their supporting players to put them away.

Yesterday most of their offloads were lateral and their passing was rushed and behind the man when they had overlaps. They could still be out there now trying to score that elusive second try.

Ireland are a very difficult side to beat at this level because, consciously or unconsciously, they evolve and reinvent themselves more quickly than the opposition video coach can analyse.

Read more: Fate deals a generous hand to Schmidt's men

Yesterday Ireland gave a meaty performance yet it lacked the sizzle and the steak of some of their performances in November.

Wesley Fofana, France, is tackled by Robbie Henshaw, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Wesley Fofana, France, is tackled by Robbie Henshaw, Ireland. RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship, Ireland v France. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

The one constant in the stats since Joe Schmidt took over is the offload. Ireland only offloaded the ball twice yesterday - this tells you about Ireland's thinking in games as tight as these. We can say it now: Joe Schmidt's teams don't like taking chances - risk-free rugby is like a Bloody Mary without the Vodka.

Yes, Ireland did come close to scoring a try or two yesterday and when they went 18-6 up rather than batten down the hatches and take a few chances, they ceded the ball to the French to give them a foothold in the game which I thought was rather charitable because circumstances decreed that they should be put away without mercy.

This French side are a witless bunch who played with a spectacular lack of style and you would wonder how the FFR can continue to keep Philippe Saint-André in a job.

What Schmidt prescribed for his team was a hymn to simplicity. Unfortunately, it is a strictly quantifiable form of the game and it depends hugely on his world-class halfbacks to execute it for him.

Jonathan Sexton gave a remarkable performance yesterday, kicking all his goals. It was a match where we all could gauge the value of his rugby intellect. Despite a three-month break from the game, he was mentally nimble and most of his kicks - apart from two in the first five minutes of the second half - carried his stamp of thought on how they went and how they were delivered.

The difference between this and the Italian game was the quality of distribution. His handling and distribution were nearly faultless. You could make a case that when Ireland threatened deep in the French 22 in the third quarter and Sexton ran on to an invitation from Conor Murray his pass to Jared Payne could have been classed as unsympathetic and probably carrying a little bit too much pace on it but if you know Sexton he whips those passes out. The Kiwi would not have scored in any case as he was covered and the likelihood was that by the time the recycle would have come France would have got numbers out to the left where Ireland had two spare men. It was Ireland's best try-scoring opportunity - they will have to make those opportunities count against England.

Conor Murray had yet another lucid game at the base and he is obviously instructed to box-kick that often. Tommy Bowe when he signed his IRFU contract would not have thought that he would have spent so much of yesterday's game jumping into the air competing for the ball. What about finishing off glorious passing movements? Whatever happened to sneaking into the outhalf's corridor and taking a little pop pass to score under the sticks?

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Tommy Bowe celebrate Ireland's victory against France
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, right, and Tommy Bowe celebrate Ireland's victory against France

Bowe was Ireland's most effective player yesterday and he won some priceless ball to retain possession. If he keeps doing it why desist from the tactic. It's not what we expect from him but it is very effective.

Elsewhere, Seán O'Brien had a lustrous match yesterday. His performance was astonishing. I do not know how he made it on to the pitch; he seemed to be in good condition as he left it yesterday - a vital boon for Ireland. Joe Schmidt will have to make a call at tighthead. Mike Ross gave away far too many penalties and the English, whether everybody wants him or not, will make the scrum an issue in a fortnight's time. Ireland too will have to be a little bit more adventurous than they were yesterday.

Read more: Winning is the only game in town

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