Sunday 22 April 2018

Neil Francis: This is the worst Ireland side to be sent into battle in more than 15 years

'Such is the dearth in quality, Rory Best is not far away from being our best player. . . I have huge admiration for his application and his ability, but this is a nightmare start for him as captain' Photo: Paul Harding / SPORTSFILE
'Such is the dearth in quality, Rory Best is not far away from being our best player. . . I have huge admiration for his application and his ability, but this is a nightmare start for him as captain' Photo: Paul Harding / SPORTSFILE
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In the lead-up to today's match in the Aviva there were only two things which could possibly stop Wales from winning, and by winning I don't mean falling over the winning line marginally ahead of Ireland - I mean winning big.

The first element is rain. It is due to pour from the heavens at 3.0 this afternoon. At the very least, conditions will be tough for the players. The other element would be if Wazza opened his trap. So far not even half a throwaway line that we could ruminate on. It's been platitudes and love all around. Not one barb or snide remark. I can't believe it's not bitter.

When the Irish team was announced at lunchtime on Friday, Gatland must have exhaled at some of the gaping holes in Joe Schmidt's roster. Yes Ireland are missing seven or eight starters but some of the replacements - wow! Keep the head down, keep your powder dry, prepare your team to play and all will be well.

Why start a war of words when there is no need to? Dublin is a hard place to win in and we are the underdogs . . . blah, blah, bleedin' blah and that should do it. Stay out of the way until the post-match press conference and that should prevent any unnecessary sideshows.

Joe Schmidt

This is the worst Ireland side to be named for a competitive match in over 15 years. You could argue over one or two of the names but Schmidt has had very little choice left. He went for the most experience that he could put on the field. I don't think it will make a huge amount of difference. Ireland's front five has an AIL look about it.

One of the things we have to take cognisance of is what Wales have in abundance: experience. Ireland have experience too but can't match the level of quality experience Wales have with nine Test Lions in their squad and more squad Lions as well (some down to the fact Wazza picked his own players ahead of other English, Irish or Scots but mostly because they were the right pick). Wales have two Lions captains in their ranks and several Wales captains all over the park.

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It is worth noting that this is the first time since Dion O'Cuinneagain (remember him?) was captain that Ireland's captain was not their best and most influential player. Keith Wood, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell had a high premium attached to their selection. If the full roster was available, Rory Best would be a long way off that accolade. But such is the dearth in quality, that year-in year-out Rory Best is not far away from being our best player. I have huge admiration for his application and his ability, which at 33 continues to improve, but he has a nightmare start as captain.

It is hard to know where to start because Wales hold all of the cards and will be difficult to break down. It could get to the point that you hold your hands up above your head before you set foot on the pitch.

Devin Toner. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Devin Toner (above) has, through hard work and dedication, become a first-class lock. The truth is, though, that his rise to the required level has come about as a foil or complement for his second-row partners. In pretty much the same way that you have to pick a back row that has balance in it - Wales haven't but will more than get away with it - you have to pick a second row where their weaknesses are compensated by your partner. Toner can't carry effectively and is not good on the deck.

O'Connell could carry out every requirement of a second row's workload with unmatched excellence. It more than compensated for what Toner couldn't do and it gave Toner freedom and licence to go out doing what he does well. Toner is exposed if his partner doesn't fulfil his obligations in areas where he isn't good.

It is dispiriting for the prospects of this rugby nation if the best second row we can pick for this vital Test is Mick McCarthy. I suppose the term grafter was coined for players who couldn't do anything especially well. As Leinster went through their annus horribilis in the Heineken Cup, I personally failed to observe the 'fine form' that McCarthy carried through that campaign.

Maybe someone in the Leinster camp said it in a statement and people took it for a fact. The season before last, Wales' Luke Charteris made an incredible 37 tackles in one match in the RBS championship. I am open to changing my mind about McCarthy if he gets close to half that number.

Nathan White: 'The spotlight's on and people may look at you a bit more closely than others' Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

I suspect Ireland will do ok at tight. Nathan White (above) might have the same BMI as Mike Ross, but is he as efficient or forceful a scrummage? He is a long way off being an international-class player. Parity at scrum time is what I would settle for before the match. If it rains heavily, the scrum will become a much bigger factor.

Maybe three or four penalty scrums per team might be the order of the day as Jerome Garces arbitrarily pings one side then another. Lineouts will be dependent on the quality of kick-chase. Whichever side dominates and pressurises the ball in the air will get the lineout put-in and then you can get time on the ball.

The problem for Ireland when they have the ball is that they will struggle to break Wales down. Ireland do struggle to get around or through blitz defences and traditional remedies of cross-kicks and dinks over the top are now anticipated, and frankly the risk reward here falls in to the category of a low percentage play. Wales, in particular with their numbers four to eight, will tackle everything and tackle them effectively. They really do mop up and absorb what you throw at them on the ground.

And so with no Henderson, O'Brien or O'Mahony to carry and challenge to them, Wales will literally defend their way to victory this afternoon. Stop Ireland, turn them over and be patient. Ireland are underpowered in every row this afternoon. If they mount a challenge up front, it will have been a good day's work.

There is a train of thought that Wales are working to a climax where all their experienced core of players come to the fore and garner a championship or two. The nucleus of that team has another three or four seasons left in it and a Lions tour as well. They haven't missed Leigh Halfpenny thus far because Dan Biggar has done the job for them but in the absence of Halfpenny and Liam Williams, Gareth Anscombe looks the only weakness in terms of their playing personnel.

The only other weakness might be the sense of Wales just turning up today. Ireland might be going through comparative horrors at the moment but Wales will have to be very good to win. They do have a habit of fancying themselves for the championship, losing the first game and recovering strongly.

Wales have us all over the park and I expect them to win, but Joe Schmidt could send a bunch of girl guides out and they could still cause trouble. If you trouble Wales when they expect to win you have half a chance.

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