Saturday 20 January 2018

Neil Francis: Some Ireland careers may hinge on beating Scotland

Ireland should expect to win but with experienced and proven operators waiting to get back into the fold, there is pressure on our emerging players to perform

Ireland's Josh van der Flier, left, Nathan White, centre, and Ultan Dillane
Ireland's Josh van der Flier, left, Nathan White, centre, and Ultan Dillane
Josh van der Flier is likely to get another to stake his claim for a regular place on Saturday. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There was a time when heading to Paris for a Test match - particularly if you needed a result - was like heading into a lion's cage in a pork chop three-piece suit. England are Kings of the Castle this year because Eddie Jones insists that his team are all crew - no passengers.

The change observed is that England have reverted from their core values and respect policy implemented by Stuart Lancaster for obvious reasons and adopted a less-than-gentlemanly approach to the game.

By shooting first and barely asking questions later England have rediscovered why most of the Six Nations teams don't like them - but at least this time they are winning. Four pretty perfunctory performances against some pretty staid opposition and Eddie Jones is suddenly a genius.

He has got a few things right but realises himself that England are a long way off being a superior side - although you still reckon they could go well in Australia in June.

RUGBYU Eng_177.jpg
England celebrate winning the triple crown. Photo: PA

They will go there as Grand Slam champions because, despite their propensity for blowing Grand Slams and championships on the final day, they will have a little more cohesion and team ethic than France can muster.

Scotland come here on Saturday in expectation of a win on the foot of a rowdy and aggressive performance while dispatching France. Grounds for Scottish optimism are based purely on the fact that the win although done in a proficient manner was down to the fact that the French are absolutely shite.

I see Guy Noves having more sleepless nights than Macbeth. The French are a disgrace and have only themselves to blame internationally for turning their national league into Barnum & Bailey.

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From Ireland's perspective, knowing Italy were vulnerable was one thing; capitalising on it is another. The Italians lacked wit because their halves were below Pro12 standard and lacked power because they were reduced to a makeshift second-row, although they did continue to make their tackles.

Turkey shoots come as a result of a side abdicating defensive responsibility. Italy leaked a few easy ones but Ireland continued to direct themselves at their goal - that is hard to do when there is very little buzz at the ground, when the Mexican waves are bobbing around the Aviva and the bench was being vacated from 50 minutes on. Medusa wouldn't have got any notice out of the crowd last Saturday.

Scotland will be tricky but surely they must know that a lot of what happened against the French won't happen and shouldn't occur at the Aviva.

The reason Scotland looked so good was because their set-piece was solid and they managed to get some pretty good ruck ball.

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - MARCH 13: WP Nel of Scotland is challenged by Yacouba Camara of France during the RBS Six Nations match between Scotland and France at Murrayfield Stadium on March 13, 2016 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The speed of their recycle was pretty efficient but you just thought how proficient on the ground were Damien Chouly, Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret. You can review the French game until doomsday but the Ireland game will be very different at the tackle scene.

It is this game that we get to find out how good Josh van der Flier is. To be frank, I think Tommy O'Donnell would have performed better in the games Van der Flier performed in.

You also wonder what is going to happen when Chris Henry, Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony are fully fit. Will the Leinster flanker even make the plane for South Africa? How much better than Dominic Ryan is he?

When a match is still being played - yet the result is a foregone conclusion - it is always interesting to see who still continues to keep playing.

I thought Van der Flier ended up game watching in the second half against Italy. I was never sure how effective he was against England. You can always appear to be doing your job and Van der Flier made all his tackles. He carried, closed down space and cleared out well on several occasions.

Australia's David Pocock is being persued by Wasps. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile.

The key to 7-play can be learned from watching the top of the food chain - Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Michael Hooper and George Smith (still). All of these players are at the top of their profession even if McCaw is gone. From their first cap it was obvious that all of them would become greats.

Pocock's performances in last year's World Cup were so extraordinary that you wondered how many Pococks were on the field and how many limbs he actually had. Their craft on the ground is intuitive. The speed of engagement when players get to the breakdown and their velocity of contact is split-second.

At all stages, all of the aforementioned players know what to do in every situation and how to do it.

How to position their body, where and how to get to the ball - the most effective way to engineer a steal or slow the ball down. The ground player's instinct. Slow the ball for three seconds and the opposition might as well kick it away.

Is it unfair to compare Van der Flier to these greats? Not if you want to join them.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 12: Maro Itoje of England drives on during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Wales at Twickenham Stadium on March 12, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

One of the stand-out performers from the Championship this year has been Maro Itoje. Prime among his many fine attributes is his maturity. At just 21 years of age to be able to physically handle yourself at Test level is an achievement. To do so and make it look like you have been doing it for 10 years well that is special. Consider that a second-row really doesn't reach his prime until he is 30-31.

I think a 22-year-old Van der Flier is a good deal off where he needs to be at the breakdown and how he handles himself mentally and physically in this important phase. You can see that distinctive scrum cap always in and around the action. Yet sometimes the pace and unbridled aggression at this sector can be disconcerting. You have to assert yourself and get to the pace quickly - as in take just two or three international appearances to get there.

You know that mature players like O'Mahony, O'Brien and Henry will be effective when they take their first step into the tackle scene. Experience tells them what to do straight away.

People calling out to give youth a fling don't realise how quickly you have to make a physical and mental judgement at the breakdown and how often younger, less experienced players get it wrong.

Sean O'Brien is so good in all the areas of No 7 play that we didn't fully realise his value on the ground and his ability to turn the ball at the highest level.

Saturday's game will be decided on what type of ball and its quality that comes from the breakdown. Scotland's South African Josh Strauss and their Kiwi John Hardie had a good day against France in conjunction with John Barclay.

Our South African and Jamie Heaslip will measure up and so the pressure not to perform but to outperform and play with experience and maturity beyond his international understanding so far is an absolute imperative. The first two caps are on the house - you have to earn this one.

It will be a bad day in the Aviva if Ireland conspire to lose this one.

Irish Independent

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