Saturday 14 December 2019

Neil Francis: Ireland are back in the 1990s in terms of squad depth

Ireland captain Rory Best and head coach Joe Schmidt in London at yesterday's Six Nations launch (Photo: John Walton/PA Wire)
Ireland captain Rory Best and head coach Joe Schmidt in London at yesterday's Six Nations launch (Photo: John Walton/PA Wire)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

"This performance crystallises the sentiment not only are Leinster contenders but they are also the best team in this competition and this writer thinks that with a home advantage which can be garnered next week against Paris and with a bit of luck Leinster will win their second Heineken in the space of two years."

"It would be a rash judgement to base this opinion on a performance against a lamentable Saracens side who, given that they are second in the Aviva Premiership, would give powerful supposition to the fact that the English game is in serious decline and is light years behind the quality of the top Magners sides."

I wrote this paragraph back in 2012 - a mere four years ago. At that time everything I said was true or turned out to happen. Leinster did indeed turn out to win the Heineken Cup that season. Saracens - well Leinster played with them like the cat who played with the mouse long after it was dead.

I remember that match well. Leinster played with such authority and sewed up the pitch as if they had a first-class honours in street wisdom. Four years later, Saracens are the Kings of the Castle and I know lots of things can happen between now and April but I think they are the best side in the competition and will win the Heineken Cup in May.

They will get the better of four other English sides and squeeze the win out against more than likely French opposition in the other section.

That's the way it was back in 2012 - none of the English sides could live with the top Magners sides.

Luke Fitzgerald, Leinster, is tackled by Jimmy Gopperth, Wasps Photo:Sportsfile

When Leinster played against Wasps (above) in the their final pool game at the Ricoh in Coventry last Saturday, there were many factors at play which determined that they went down 51-10. There is a big difference between pride and professional pride in the game of union.

Professional pride means you turn up in a prepared frame of mind, you make your tackles and you get stuck in. Professional pride probably falls short of dying for the cause! Pride? Well, that runs a whole lot deeper. Very hard to reconcile that with 39 unanswered points. And so we must question the current mind-set of the bulk supplier of players to Ireland's squad.

The Ospreys folded in predictably spectacular style in Exeter but that never seems to bother them. I have a bad feeling that it cannot but affect Ireland's entire squad.

England's ruinous exit from the World Cup has been conveniently forgotten about and the impressive Heineken pool winners full of Saracens, Wasps and Exeter Chiefs are set to continue that roll when the Six Nations starts. England's 23-man squad was announced with a fanfare over the last couple of days - bar a couple of newbie introductions, this is the same English XV that failed against Wales and were embarrassed by Australia in the pool stages of 2015's World Cup.

England Head Coach Eddie Jones

Wales, not England, are of immediate concern for Ireland but it is funny to observe England's new coach Eddie Jones (above) getting away with selecting the same XV - he does by dint of fact that they are winning all around them in Europe and there is no reason to suspect that won't continue when the RBS Championship kicks off.

Jones is a serious piece of work on the training paddock and I suspect he will kick-start England's fortunes in two weeks' time.

I do have grave reservations about his choice of captain - Dylan Hartley. Over the last few months in the British and Irish isles, rain and subsequent flooding have exposed those unfortunates who chose to build their homes on flood plains.

Pinning your hopes on Hartley in the hope that his recidivist behaviour will abate just because he is wearing a captain's armband is asking for trouble. Basing your strategy on a confrontational style and choosing Harley to be your standard bearer - well it's only a matter of time before that blows up in your face.

Shame on everyone in the RFU who facilitated Hartley's selection.

So Jones gets away with picking Lancaster's team again and yet Joe Schmidt is criticised for doing the same.

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Joe Schmidt (Photo: SPORTSFILE)

Schmidt has no choice; there is so much quality currently injured that it leaves Ireland threadbare all over the park. If you have a mediocre team you cannot exacerbate the situation by picking kids or single-digit-capped players. If you have a New Zealand-type pool of players to choose from, it is easy to throw three or four newbies in to mix it up but you keep your big guns on the bench just in case it doesn't work out.

We are now back to the late 1990s in terms of Heineken Cup performances and also in terms of international squad depth. Ireland have their three most difficult matches first up - the issue for Schmidt is that Ireland will lose about 25 per cent of their 23-man squad.

The team that plays against Scotland in March will be radically different from the one that plays Wales on Sunday week. I'm not sure if Ireland's management committee has any contingencies for this eventuality. You can't win a Championship with such sparse resources.

It has been 103 days since Argentina duffed us in Cardiff. I'm not sure if that time went slowly or quickly but that is a long time for a national team coach to stew on what was a profoundly disappointing performance on that Sunday back in October.

David Nucifora's report didn't get much air time and I'm not sure it was geared towards a quick-fix for the Six Nations. Nucifora's focus will be on the four-year programme.

Read more here:

Joe Schmidt really hasn't said a word about anything. All we know is that his squad is lacking quality and he has had time to think through what he needs to do to make his team competitive. He will have to sweat his assets and maximise his resources like never before.

Schmidt has no defence coach in place as we speak - the two Championships in 2014 and 2015 were built on the bedrock of outstanding and intelligent defence. Of the contending teams, Jones employs a blitz, Guy Noves might and Wazza certainly will. Are Ireland still going to drift? That is the number one question about how Ireland will perform - how they defend.

We looked at the World Cup and saw how limited kick-chase was and all the big southern hemisphere sides just didn't engage. They ran the ball back and counter-attacked. But this is the Six Nations and the chances are that the coaches who survived the World Cup probably will think that the low percentage will work again. Just execute that bit better.

Argentina offloaded us off the park, New Zealand did it to France and Australia did it to England. I don't think you want to hear what my crystal ball says about why the Six Nations teams are not going to follow this very definitive trend that saw the World Cup go to sides who played the continuity game.

Schmidt is a resourceful fella and probably realises that what he did last season will not work and that the squad he has doesn't have the wherewithal but he is clever enough to make them competitive.

They have been embarrassed in Europe, the body language is bad and all his players head into camp on a downer. There are no clear favourites except of course for England.

We wait for the rabbit.

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