Sunday 15 December 2019

Neil Francis: I was horrified to be on shortlist of pundits slated for 'criticising' Joe Schmidt

Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt at the Six Nations launch. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Maro Itoje is one of the England players likely to do damage in the latter stages. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I was horrified to be included in a shortlist of two by Steve James of the 'Daily Telegraph' of the Irish pundits who had been heavily criticising Joe Schmidt. Three weeks ago I had penned a piece about Ireland's World Cup experience where Schmidt's ambition and zealous nature may have overcome the players somewhat when the knockout stages were coming into view. Other than that I have worshipped at the altar.

My views are quite simple. I consider Schmidt to be the best coach in the Six Nations and arguably in the world.

Michael Cheika, by winning the Rugby Championship at his first attempt and getting a hitherto underperforming Wallaby side to the World Cup final, would have most detached viewers' attention.

Steve Hansen failed miserably on the road to maturity when in command at Wales, barely winning 50pc of his matches. It is amazing how your luck changes when you take control of the All Blacks and suddenly you start winning 90pc.


If recognition of a coach's abilities are down to how he manages with meagre resources and a seriously shallow playing pool - well then Schmidt is the number one coach in the world.

If he was in charge of either Australia or New Zealand, both teams would still have got to the final. Schmidt falls down by not performing in the quarter-finals.

Who would be stupid enough to call for Schmidt's head when he gets his team to perform and out-perform year in, year out? Why even consider looking for his head when he retains the confidence of 99pc of the population and, more importantly, his squad? Robert Kennedy said 'about one fifth of the people are against everything all of the time.'

Even the small minority of grumblers really should reassess. Why replace the coach we have with an inferior one just because he currently plays a narrow brand of the game and because he won't pick highly-inexperienced players who are a mile away from the pace of international rugby? As Kennedy also said, "Fear not the path of truth for the lack of people walking on it."

Next year we will have England and France at home and might be lucky to have near enough a full roster.

Schmidt's strength is his ability to prepare a team to win. It is a very rare thing to see a team coached by him that is not at least competitive. England will win most likely on Saturday but they will have to play really well to accomplish that win.

The most intriguing thing about this game will be the tete-a-tete with Eddie Jones.

This year's Championship has been characterised by some pretty witless performances - endeavour without intelligence, possession without knowledge.

All matches have come down to the triumph of will over skill and both coaches here looking for a small advantage in two or three phases of play. So, a tight, hard-to-watch, low-scoring game seems certain and Ireland do have a chance.

It is worth noting that, limited and all as Ireland have been, they have been marvellously belligerent at all phases of play when the lack of quality in his threadbare roster suggests that it would be easier to roll over and die.

England have won but have been less than impressive in disposing of Scotland and Italy - everyone over in England are pretty certain that the jump in quality will come automatically.

They are all afraid that if the standard produced against the two weakest sides is produced this Saturday that Ireland will win.

Head coach of a national side is a vocational thing. If sitting down and analysing hours and hours of videotapes is a chore you are in the wrong job.

Schmidt was headmaster of Palmerston North; Jones, like a lot of other Six Nations coaches, was also a school teacher.


He went from physical education teacher to vice-principal in the four years he was at Matraville High School. Even back then Jones drove his players unbelievably hard.

"I have a strict policy of quality training. My background as a school teacher taught me about optimal learning periods. We have a maximum period of 70 minutes. After that it becomes counterproductive," Jones said about his methods.

I'm not sure if he is sticking to that mantra now. He has flogged England since taking over.

Jones probably is truthful when he says he hasn't had enough time with this England side and might leave their best performance till the end.

They could very easily come to Paris with two losses in the bag. There are no guarantees that they will beat Wales in a fortnight either.

It's hard to see where Jones' influence has come to the fore on any sector of the field. If you look back over the Scotland or Italy videos, there is very little to glean from them.

One of the things that Jones took a lot of credit for when he was assistant coach to the Springboks was the improvement in their passing and their ability to attack particularly from set-plays.

England's passing looked in patches like they knew what they were doing. If you analysed them you could say that they were certainly on the ground floor of something! Will they cut Ireland to shreds with a display of incisive passing this Saturday?

They will certainly have a go if we continue to defend as narrowly as we do. Jared Payne's presence is vital in this regard. He has become Ireland's most intelligent and reliable defender.

France did not have the wit to do it or the dexterity to get the ball outside the drift quickly enough. England can do that. Farrell's passing, particularly the flat cut-out pass which gets to Watson or Nowell without a check or a stop, will trouble us.

I think both packs will beat each other into stalemate and, as it did in Paris, the complexion of the game will change once the English bench comes on.

Maro Itoje, Jack Clifford, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George will do damage in the last 15 and Schmidt has to sit on his hands because the bench he has - no matter who he picks - they won't be good enough.

The likelihood is that Jones will win because he has a better supply of quality, uninjured players who he can turn to in the last quarter.

If I do have a gripe it is that Schmidt still hasn't put a sticking plaster on Ireland's inability to score for long periods of the second half.

If it even comes down to playing for drop goals when Ireland get into the English half - I will take that. It's England remember - I would take a victory of any kind.

Remember our struggle on Saturday is not with England but with our own limitations.

Irish Independent

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