Sunday 18 February 2018

Neil Francis: I wish once, just once, that someone would put in a monumentally selfish performance

It's important to add spice to what we have in the larder at this stage, says Neil Francis

Sean O'Brien in action for the Wolfhounds on Friday: He needs to play against Italy to be ready for French clash
Sean O'Brien in action for the Wolfhounds on Friday: He needs to play against Italy to be ready for French clash
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It's the home stretch for candidates for selection for the Six Nations defence and six months before the squad is announced for the World Cup. What's the old saying? 'Don't look back, somebody may be catching up on you'.

In this tetchy, nervy period when making the 23-man squad is everything, the advice is don't even slow down much less look back. Quite a number of candidates in Carton House watching proceedings in Irish Independent Park on Friday night would have been permitted a cursory glance in the rear-view mirror. Nothing to worry about!

Rugby has become such an homogenised colour-by-numbers game of patterns and phases that once the team dynamic goes, well then anyone looking for some solo glory will have a frustrated evening. I wish once, just once, that someone would put in a monumentally selfish performance. Take everything out of the ball, never pass and try everything on their own just to break the God awful monotony of it all. As the Yanks say about baseball, don't bunt - aim out of the ballpark. Rugby isn't that type of game anymore. The game's handlers performed a Phil Bennettechtomy long ago.

It is important at this stage of the season in a match of this type to see what we have in the larder. A good deal more than mouldy cheese and sauerkraut but they didn't and couldn't perform on Friday night. An 'A' class international match with a 'D' class referee. If I'd wanted staccato I would have gone to La Scala. I fell asleep (genuinely) after 30 minutes. I should have knocked the Sky Plus off as well.

The result of the match is absolutely inconsequential, but we were looking for assured performances and we didn't get them. The English too will not have garnered much from the match except to note that Sam Burgess will probably make the English squad for the Rugby World Cup . . . in 2019.

The standard of Friday night's match in Cork was a long way short of Test quality. In fact, it was not far from a tedious Pro12 encounter. England know all of our tricks and traditions and a virgin try-line was testimony to that.

Ireland's pack weren't half clever enough to commit English forwards to the rucks, nor did they attempt to maul them properly at any stage and so England had a thick white blanket of defenders in the out-field, steel-tipped by their bigger, better back-row. Kvesic and Ewers are not even fourth choice but they were industrious, committed and intelligent. A further sign that Jack Conan has a long way to go. Thomas 'the tank engine' Waldrom is as one-paced as you can get, but he was in the game all night and at the hub of any invention from England.

Ireland ran into tacklers all evening and worse still they looked for contact. The difference between the sides was England's desire to offload, even on a slippery wet night and they got most of those offloads away cleverly. With such a limited game plan Ireland would always look like a team who met in the pub an hour before the game.

Joe Schmidt got what he wanted. Some of his important forwards got a meaty work-out and he got closure on some of the decisions he has to make with some of those on view in the outfield. Ian Madigan may come in for some criticism for standing deep in his channel but there was precious little ball to come forward into. If you stand flat with a condensed line of defenders lined up opposite you, the ball won't make it past first centre. England's line speed was better than even-paced and Madigan had no choice but to put depth into his positioning. On the odd occasion when they did get runnable ball he did look a bit static and seemed to just ship the ball on.

Inside him, Kieran Marmion had an unsatisfactory evening, no generalship of the type that Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan show at provincial and Test level. Friday was one of those nights when Marmion should have taken a hell of a lot more on himself - he bunted all night. Those sniping little breaks that should have kept the English fringe honest never materialised. He has done them for Connacht all season. Four or five of those breaks and he was in the Irish squad for Rome. Nor did he marshal his forwards well and he must wait to see whether the established scrumhalves do not recover from injury.

It was good to see Keith Earls back. He will, injury-permitting, be part of Schmidt's World Cup squad but not the Six Nations. I am not sure why they picked him at 13 and Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing in the original selection. Earls has been exposed defensively in midfield on more than one occasion and Schmidt, I suspect, will just not pick him as a centre in any international Test match. He missed too many tackles on Friday night. That stomach bug may have copperfastened Fitzgerald's selection - sometimes it is better not to play in these matches.

Felix Jones and Fergus McFadden will make the World Cup squad but Craig Gilroy has a huge amount to do to even get close.

The most encouraging performance up front came from Iain Henderson. The long mop and the Chris Bonnington beard maybe gives you the impression that the north face of the Eiger is where he is heading. By the end of 2015, he will be Ireland's premier lock and he will force himself into a starting role sooner rather than later. He is a serious bit of stuff.

I don't think it is a matter of choice for Joe Schmidt. I think he has to start Seán O'Brien next Saturday. He will be rusty and has a good chance of getting injured again on the basis that the Italian game is traditionally hard slog and he is far from a position of match-fit immunity. It is the French game that he is needed for and unless he gets 60 minutes in Rome there is no point starting him in Dublin for the French match.

Mike Ross and Gordon D'Arcy are the imponderables, both good enough to do a job in the Six Nations and the World Cup but that might not be the way the coach is thinking. We are told there will be new thinking and a few surprises in selection.

The coach is obviously aiming out of the ballpark.

Sunday Indo Sport

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