Tuesday 23 January 2018

Neil Francis: The French bench was just freakish in size - Uini Atonio is big enough to have his own post code

The problem about size is that you can't legislate or regulate it, writes Neil Francis

Robbie Henshaw (left) and Jonathan Sexton attempt to halt France’s midfield colossus Mathieu Bastareaud
Robbie Henshaw (left) and Jonathan Sexton attempt to halt France’s midfield colossus Mathieu Bastareaud
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Years ago, Gary Halpin and I went skiving into a pub on the outskirts of civilisation when we should have been at a video session or doing something else. We weren't bingeing - just skiving - shooting the breeze.

Some easy time. No matter what you might say about the pair of us, you could not escape the fact that we were, well . . .  obvious. A couple of 18-stone strays just come mooching into a country town. It wasn't long before we became the subject of wonder.

"D'yee play deh rubbee?"

"We do"

"Yee'd have a fair ould feed of shteak and shpuds teh keep yee going"

"Yip"

"Big, strong rubbee min, dats what yee are, huh"

"Indeed"

"Big strong rubbee min God bless yee"

It wasn't long before the whole Irish rubbee team were talking big, strong rubbee min-ese. This phase went on for quite a while. In May of 1992, Ireland toured New Zealand. It was a weakened party - quite a number of the senior members of the Irish squad did not travel - including your correspondent. Work commitments . . . ahem.

It was perceived to be a bad tour all round. There ain't much fun in New Zealand. The penultimate match was against Manawatu. The team from Palmerston North put 58 points on Ireland that afternoon. They were fairly formidable opponents back then. As they scored yet another try under the sticks, Ireland's captain for the day pulled his troops together behind the posts to try and ascertain what the problem was and to see if he could exhort them to up their performance a bit.

"Lads, this performance is a f**king disgrace, you're wearing a f**king green jersey here, you're playing for your f**king country, the way some of you are playing you'll never play for your f**king country again. This f**king lot are a second division side, can anyone tell me how this lot have put 48 points on us?"

Silence.

"Well?"

Gary had this amazing facility for saying the most inappropriate thing at the most inappropriate time.

"Because they're big, strong rubbee min?"

The huddle collapsed in a heap as all the players fell about laughing. The television pictures were incredible. Just as the New Zealand commentators were remarking on how grim the situation had become. Maybe, they ventured, a spirited response from the Irish would come to save their blushes.

Gallows humour and a laughing epidemic was the best we could come up with. I suspect that a certain headmaster of a boys' school in Palmerston North may have been at that game and probably couldn't believe his eyes. Long odds on a repetition of that response on Joe Schmidt's watch. Either way, Manawatu were a grizzled bunch of ruffians who were too big and too physical for Ireland back then.

In the last couple of years before home games I normally wander down to pitch-side with Liam Toland to spot form as the players go through their pre-match routine. The big, strong rubbee min running around in blue jerseys last week gave you the mistaken notion that some sumo wrestlers had turned up at the wrong Basho. France had some stunning physical specimens in their roster.

Later, up in the press box, I squinted at the television monitor just as the forwards were set to pack down for the first scrum. Ireland weighed in at a combined 916 kilos and the anorexic French at an underwhelming 873. The weights listed in the programme were out of the Hans Christian Andersen school of weight calculation. The French team was enormous. You would have been a while trying to measure their carbon footprint.

Pascal Pape's weight was given as 102kgs in the programme- maybe that was his weight when he was 16 but not now. Drico was heavier than that a few years ago. Pape may put on a few pounds during his 10-week suspension. This will be reduced to five on appeal for spurious and groundless reasons. Why leave yourself open to more ridicule by giving Pape leave to appeal - which he will and most assuredly will result in his punishment being reduced?

Pape is about 120 kilos, which Jamie Heaslip can affirm, and the French eight was bigger and heavier than the Irish pack. Whether they were more effective was answered last Saturday. The French bench was just freakish in size - Uini Atonio at 146kgs is big enough to have his own post code. Romain Taofifenua at 137kgs is a freak. Those fellas in the pub down the country all those years ago that wondered at the size of Halpin and myself just couldn't comprehend the scale of these men.

I could not comprehend how big the Toulon pack was when they won their first Heineken Cup in 2013 in Dublin. Bakkies Botha, Danie Roussow, Carl Haymen and Andrew Sheridan were in the sponsors' room standing around like Redwoods unaware of their sheer physical size while people gawped in slack-jawed amazement.

The biggest and most powerful mercenaries that money could buy. Power and size win cups evidently The human race is constantly evolving but international forwards are constantly coming in ahead of the average.

The first point that has to be made is that it is difficult to convey just how strong these men are, how quickly they can move and how devastating the blunt force trauma is when they tackle you.

In the current concussion debate, size and power are always the prime factors. The problem about size is that you can't legislate or regulate it. Soon there will be no forward under 110kgs at Test level and they will pound each other into submission and if you thought last Saturday's Test match was boring, wait until Goliath's younger brother arrives on the scene in five or 10 years' time.

Robotic lumbering hulks programmed to pound his opposing robotic hulk to a pulp. The day's of picking a lithe and lean athlete will be gone soon.

It is now too late to try and de-power the game - the game rollercoasters on to the next generation of freaks.

A signal moment in the affairs of the French rugby nation came as they offloaded their bench. A nadir reached. A proud rugby nation reduced to springing gorgons off the bench after 60 minutes of attrition in the hope that they could steamroll Ireland into hapless resignation while the likes of Maxime Medard doesn't even feature in the French squad.

I often wonder about what our lot are thinking as they go out to face forwards the size of aircraft hangars. Somebody like Paul O'Connell, who is not naturally a big man. O'Connell would be a light-heavyweight or a cruiserweight operating in a heavyweight division.

The richness of his contribution and spirit will determine that he more often that not comes out on top of any bigger opponent he meets at this level. But for how long? You often feel that Irish packs have to outperform, particularly when they play SANZAR/England/France, because there is usually a significant weight difference and a power deficit.

I felt they were very brave and redoubtable in their performance against France and you always get the feeling that they have nothing left when the final whistle goes.

The Six Nations format and the necessity to continue to fight bigger packs will tell eventually. England's remorseless and direct form of play will be the ultimate test this season for an Irish pack that continually does well to hold it all together in the face of fierce pressure and aggression. Ireland's big strong rubbee min not only have to absorb what happens up front, but next week will meet a back-line that actually knows what it is doing.

Next Sunday will be a real Test match - England have no giants but they can apply pressure and unlike France can play football when required. Ireland cannot depend on bravery and organisation alone for this one.

Sunday Indo Sport

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