Tuesday 20 February 2018

Neil Francis: Schmidt and Jones should beware of the gunslingers in this spring's shoot-out

England head coach Eddie Jones, left, along with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
England head coach Eddie Jones, left, along with Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A while ago I played a game of golf at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, a fabulous course and way too good for the likes of me. The fourball that day was Scott Hastings, Derek Stark, Gregor Townsend and me.

Townsend was my partner for a fiver - it is true what they say about the Scots. The Nevada State Commission on gambling wouldn't be investigating this one. The boys were great company and I have never enjoyed a game of golf more than that day. The Royal and Ancient may have tut-tutted at our behaviour but nobody was there to report us.

The golf course is a lush green oasis in the middle of a desert. It is very strange to see this burst of high-definition colour approach from the dunes, and hard too to reconcile the fact that the grass kept its integrity in 40-plus degrees of heat. The boys christened me Lawrence of Arabia as I spent most of the round in the sand.

Even though we had played against each other, I did not know Gregor that well. He had just come off a season where he had starred for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 1997. A winning series.

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The guy is great fun, but after five hours in a buggy with him you also realise that he is a driven individual.

Our game went from high farce to Augusta brilliance in the space of one hole. It was the final hole, though, that told you a huge amount about the way Scotland's new head coach thinks.

It was all square on the 18th tee with the fiver at stake. Townsend drove last as everyone was in deep trouble or taking a second off the tee. He hit a great drive, leaving about 220 yards to the flag. There is danger everywhere on the approach - water everywhere. A simple lay-up and a wedge and the win was a cert but I noticed Townsend had a five-wood in his hands.

"Gregor, what are you doing?"

"I'm going for it."

"Lay up you clown," I said as I stood in front of his ball.

"Get oot amae way, Lawrence."

The sledging from the other two was priceless . . . and then he knocked the ball to within five feet of the hole. At no stage was it going anywhere else but directly at the flag - a social game of golf but a snapshot of the temperament and DNA of a champion.

I bought lunch.

In the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Babe Ruth's famous words were emblazoned outside the old clubhouse. 'Never let the fear of striking out put you off'. Townsend has always backed himself, never doubted his talent and always gone for it. He is not a man to measure out his life in teaspoons.

Of all coaches on show in this year's Six Nations Championship, he is the most daring and could instruct his team to play the most dangerous form of rugby. He thrives on risk.

This Championship is now all about coaching preparation and the coach's personality. That is why Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt will probably end up going to war for the spoils on Paddy's weekend - again. The four-match preamble before Ireland's game with England seems to be more hazardous than usual this year. It's hard to know who will come out of the woods to challenge Ireland before they get to Twickenham - this column doesn't do 'take it match by match'.

And so the teams that are favoured are those with the best coaches and the best coaching ticket. Wazza, fresh from his success in New Zealand - and that is what it was - has declared that Wales are going to win the Championship, which given his CV could actually happen. Wales have no halfbacks and it would seem impossible to advance on that basis.

Les Conundrums are difficult to assess. I have never seen or known a team coached by Guy Noves to be so witless and lacking in guile. True, he mistakenly took the team a dozen years too late and eventually got sacked with an abysmal 33 per cent record, but the choice of replacement, Jacques Brunel, is a strange one.

Brunel is a year older and had an equally impressive 22 per cent record when he coached Italy. Brunel did win a Bouclier with Perpignan but the man he replaced, Noves, won nine Bouclier and an additional two as a player and four Heineken Cups to boot.

In terms of pedigree on this earth, Brunel is Pluto's distance from the sun. That is not to say he is not a good coach and he may galvanise France and possibly stop the drift into becoming a second-tier nation.

While Joe's boys were off in the south of Spain last week, one of the morsels we were left to ruminate on was the point he made at the launch of the Six Nations Championship.

"We have to put our best performance together in that first 20 minutes in France - let alone 40 or 80." Last year Ireland's season was ruined by an inept display in the first half when Scotland got off to a really quick start against us and despite catching up again, they could never regain control consistently, such was the ruffling of their feathers.

A bad start by Ireland in Paris - or put it another way, the gift of a good start for the French - may make them forget how bad they actually are. Joe knows this and I expect a good start and a win in Paris to set Ireland up.

Ireland are smarter, fitter and have far more quality in their team. I am confident Ireland will win next Saturday. The off-the-ball aggression seen in the fixture two seasons ago won't be tolerated by Nigel Owens.

November form rarely translates through to February. How genuine a scoreline was the 53-24 shellacking handed out to the Wallabies by Scotland? The near miss against New Zealand by 22-17 is probably closer to the truth.

Whatever about results against SANZA sides, the 27-22 upset win in Murrayfield against us last season had Townsend's fingerprints all over it. Scotland did exactly what Argentina did and attacked in the tramlines, exposing Ireland's defensive narrowness. Hogg and Seymour had a field day and Finn Russell pulled the strings. If you have some gunslingers in your back field, then give them some ammo. Vern Cotter was in the head coach's chair but the all-singing, all-dancing display by the Scottish backs coached by Townsend did all the damage.

Scotland are away to Wales and then home to France and England in their schedule. They could have lost their first three games by the time they come to the Aviva.

They will be mindful of the folly of their ambition of travelling down to Twickenham in expectation and end up getting tanked by a scoreline of 61-21 - send us victorious, happy and glorious - a chastening reverse, but Scotland's ambition or resolve will not have been smothered by that rueful setback and if they dismiss an ailing Welsh side they will be difficult to beat in Murrayfield in a Championship where no one wants to be favourites.

If I could paraphrase TS Eliot, 'If you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human being can put on you - you can call out his rivals team as favourites.'

While Schmidt and Jones throw the hot potato of favouritism back and forth, time and silence sits with the man with the five-wood in his hand.

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