Saturday 18 November 2017

Neil Francis: Teenage scribblers calling for Joe Schmidt's head should look at our political shambles

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt speaks to his players ahead of the game
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt speaks to his players ahead of the game
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Action Images via Reuters
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Maybe if we shine a little bit of light on our political situation it might give us some perspective on where we might end up if we are not careful.

Three weeks ago we went to the polls and as of today we are in political limbo and a state of inertia which is unresolved. We had in place a government that had done a pretty good job - yes we had water charges, nepotism and the usual host of minor charges.

The leaders didn't appeal to many but in the circumstances they kept the bus between the ditches, a safe pair of hands. I have no political allegiances of any kind but I exhale when I look at where we find ourselves now. We are on the precipice.

A few weeks ago the leader of the murders, bombers and gun-runners' party and the leader of the official monster raving loony party proposed themselves for the office of Taoiseach. We have Fianna Fail who abdicated all responsibility in their term of government roaring back almost to the point of power.

We also have voted in 19 independents who in terms of forming a government serve absolutely no purpose. If a small dedicated band of anarchists had plotted to destabilise this country they couldn't have done a better job in the circumstances.

The bottom line is irrespective of your political preferences or leanings we have wished this upon ourselves. Maybe in a few months we might wish that we had another chance to take another five years of what we had. This country is still irretrievably broke and will take 20 or 30 years to recover.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is extremely popular with fans

All those screaming and shouting for change - well look at what you've got now.

The Irish rugby team continues to box well above its weight. Two championships in three years is an unbelievable return considering our resources. I'm really pleased with that.

Maybe you, dear reader, had aspirations of three championships in three years. It might be a good idea to understand at this point in time that historically we have losing records against England, France, Wales and even yesterday's opponents Scotland.

We also have losing records against Australia and South Africa and have never beaten New Zealand. Champions of Europe and thumpings of Australia and South Africa. Unwarranted criticism of a conservative game-plan and selections are now commonplace. So a repeat of our self-destructive tendencies may be on the cards here.

Joe Schmidt's record at Leinster may not have garnered the sort of joy nationally that it did within the Pale. His first two seasons with Ireland were equally extraordinary, and we should have beaten New Zealand for the first time ever. Two championships in three seasons, what a return.

The salad days, the times of our lives. We should be paraphrasing Harold MacMillan for the next couple of seasons, yet last week the best coach we've ever had and the man most likely to maximise our playing resources and guide us through a really difficult fixture schedule till the end of the year has decided to take stock.

Some of the press are calling for his head. It is a truly unbelievable set of circumstances. Sometimes I cannot believe what we get up to in this country in terms of what we want and more pertinently why we want it.

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France's rugby team head coach Guy Noves. Photo: Christophe Ena.

If you look at the fall from grace of our Gallic cousins, we can blame their Top 14 league but we also know that if they had had a clever coach over the last 10 years their fall would be less pronounced and they would still be at the very least competitive. The people who made the decision for the French listened to the clamour and the outside noise and they chose Thomas Lievremont instead of Guy Noves.

When they changed coach again they inexplicably selected Philippe Saint Andre instead of Fabien Galthie. Their four-year cycle came again and 12 years too late they pick Guy Noves instead of Raphael Ibanez. It is the most important decision a Union makes: who coaches the national side.

If Schmidt were to announce his departure it would be a catastrophe because whoever would be picked to replace him would not even come close to being as good as him. The bookies and the teenage scribblers would choose the usual jaded names out of a non-existent list of candidates - Jake White, Nick Mallett and the long shot Eddie O'Sullivan. Outside of that there is nobody I know that would be as well placed or qualified.

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Paul O'Connell. Photo: Sportsfile

Some would call for Paul O'Connell, certainly his team would die for him and they might even put the fear of god into somebody, but would they know what to do on the pitch after getting past those first two steps? Would Paul O'Connell suffer from Martin Johnson syndrome? Great, great players sometimes never make the transition.

Some of our smarter former players hold the reins at the provinces and you would have backed them to have done far better than they have done, but there are no guarantees, and despite the calls from those clueless contrarians and those who shout loudest, the best bet we have going forward - and that means to the World Cup in 2019 - is to keep Joe Schmidt in situ and let things take their course.

In terms of completing their programme, Ireland were never going to lose yesterday's match against Scotland. The team were far superior in terms of quality all across the park.

Conor Murray scores Ireland’s third try in the win over Scotland at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy

We knew beforehand that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray would overshadow Duncan Weir and Greig Laidlaw but the difference in quality between the Irish back row and the Scottish back row was the story of the game. Ireland were playing with a six and a seven that are only there due to injuries but yesterday you wondered just how good Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien would have to be to get their places back.

Ireland got good, quick ball at the breakdown and turned the ball too many times for Scotland and had their lives made far easier than they should have been as the visitors ran predictably and passed without conviction.

Schmidt just got his preparation right and the match was over before a ball had been kicked. Ireland were too smart and they were concise and methodical in everything that they did. At the breakdown they rucked low and got beyond the ball and the quality of the ball presentation meant that the only way that the Scottish forwards could slow it down was to do so illegally, and they just weren't clever enough in trying to accomplish that, and the penalties and yellow cards came as a result.

In a 60-point game the only thing you would quibble about was a 10-point margin. Any team with Tim Swinson, Ryan Wilson, Weir, Sean Lamont and Moray Lowe in it is always going to struggle. Scotland's cutting edge, if indeed they do have one, was blunted by Ireland's line-speed, which was sharp and effective throughout the 80 .

They did, however, suffer from their traditional failings of being too narrow close to the line. This resulted in relatively simple tries for Alex Dunbar and Richie Gray.

UP AND OVER: Jonny Sexton is upended by Alex Dunbar yesterday. Photo: John Dickson

From June onwards you would wonder what direction Andy Farrell will take Ireland in defensively. With quality to come back in to the side Ireland have a set-piece and a ground game to trouble South Africa, and Sexton gave further evidence of what an accomplished kicker he is. He mixed his game with a compendium of kicks, the best being his left-footed improvised dink over the top. It was perfectly weighted and the way it was kicked was done to keep the ball in play and the bounce would always be awkward. It was one of his really good moments.

As the game changed and Scotland managed to get more of the ball, Ireland resorted to pinning them deep inside their half. Where they will get caught out is when Murray box-kicks too long and the ball ends up in the wrong person's hands. Kicking the ball to Stuart Hogg is always a dangerous thing to do, but giving it to him for free and with time to think and you know he will cause you trouble. Do the same thing to Willie le Roux in June and he will make you pay.

I think Ireland have recovered themselves. They have not lost at home and were in a position to win both away games. I am also confident that they will be very competitive in South Africa and if they travel with near enough a full complement - including a lot of fresh players - then they have a good chance of at least one Test victory.

Let's hope that it gives the coach enough encouragement to commit his future to Ireland until the World Cup in Japan.

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