Thursday 27 June 2019

Neil Francis: In 2019 Joe Schmidt will have to decide which veteran's experience is worth keeping around

Jared Payne (left), Jamie Heaslip (centre) and Rob Kearney (right).
Jared Payne (left), Jamie Heaslip (centre) and Rob Kearney (right).
By 2019 many of Ireland’s current senior men will be over the hill but Johnny Sexton, if fit, will still be in his prime. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

We learn from World Cups that we actually learn nothing from World Cups. The ninth edition of rugby's great coming-together starts in September 2019 and when we arrive there we are usually no wiser or closer to getting where we need to go.

We the Irish just do not know how to win big tournaments, nor do we know how to win Test series. It's not in our DNA. It's not in our psyche. Population dynamics, we say, decree that we are unable to win seven matches in a row in a big tournament like a World Cup. New Zealand, with roughly the same population, know exactly how to do it.

And so of all the established rugby nations scheduled to play in RWC2019 in Japan we are in the 'coulda, woulda, shoulda … didn't' category. Even our only realistic rivals to winning Pool A, Scotland, have reached a semi-final.

There were 20 contrite and humble men waiting for the draw in Kyoto yesterday morning. My God they couldn't say a positive word about themselves two-and-a-half years away from the off. In the post-draw mangle it seemed there was a sea of unexpressed thought from all the coaches. Joe Schmidt, a man of calm disposition, looked pretty sanguine as the camera panned to him in the middle of the draw.

Inside he probably felt as comfortable as a lame turkey sat on a pile of Paxo listening to Christmas carols. The draw finishes and you could not have wished for a better pool. What a draw!

The Scots ambushed us in Murrayfield this year based largely on a dollop of righteous indignation. Ireland would be just turning up to Murrayfield to collect the points on the first step to a Championship. If Ireland are any way prepared they will take the Scots in Japan.

Some people take the view that if you have a tough group in the initial stages of a competition it forces you to perform and if you clear the first hurdle you have the added benefit of form and momentum. Ireland's problem in their previous eight World Cups is one of attrition and player fatigue. None of the teams in Pool A are going to batter Ireland to death.

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Scotland of course can beat us but you won't see Ireland coming off the pitch after their pool game against France in 2015 with a pyrrhic victory in the bag but four of their key players gone for the quarter-finals.

The hosts will present us with a different type of problem to solve. Technically, the Japanese are very good as we will all find out in June. Ireland have struggled against quick, skilful sides. The narrowness of our defence is easily outflanked by sides that can pass quickly and despite being inferior physically the Japanese can hang on to the ball for long periods of time until opportunity presents itself.

Bottom line here is that it would be a major calamity if we did not progress as pool winners. There you go, I've said it. I've mentioned the unmentionable, we are expected to win that group and we will be favourites to do so and I don't see any point in mumbling platitudes about the Scots and the Japanese or any other team in the group until a day or two before the pool matches start.

The Japanese project is a medium-term goal and it is practically impossible to plan for. The key issue here is that most of Ireland's experienced core will be in their mid-30s and Schmidt will have to make a decision as to whether their World Cup and Six Nations experience is worth having around.

Jamie Heaslip of Ireland

The World Cup begins in September 2019. Of our current squad, the following players may all be over the hill by then - Rory Best will be 37, Jamie Heaslip (above) will be approaching 36, Rob Kearney will be 33, Jared Payne will be 34, Andrew Trimble will be 35 and Devin Toner will be 33. Donnacha Ryan (36) and Tommy Bowe (35) will most likely be out of the squad at that stage. Johnny Sexton if he is fit will be in his prime at 33 and will be Ireland's key player at that tournament.

The age profile of Ireland's squad and its shadow squad is good but there is without doubt a leadership deficit which is hard to bridge even in the two-and-a-half years that they have to prepare. If they can overcome that they have a very good chance of progressing to a semi-final. It is imperative that Ireland win their group because over in Pool B the prize from coming second is to play New Zealand and in 2019 we will all fondly reflect on what happened in Chicago in 2016 but you do not want to meet the All Blacks at the quarter-final stage.

South Africa are the likely Pool B runners up and they will always be capable of beating anyone, particularly given their rich heritage and proud history. South Africa though are in real trouble and their situation is only going to get worse. Last week Faf de Klerk, the Patrick Swayze of South African rugby and their starting Test scrum-half signed a three-year deal with Sale Sharks.

It is not known how much the contract is worth but you would have to imagine it would have been significant. At 25 and with his career ahead of him as an 80/90-cap Springbok, this is a truly incredible move. What would possess a Test player of his quality to forgo playing for his country and join a team as sh*te as the Sale Sharks to play in a competition as mundane as the Aviva Premiership. The answer is obvious!

As part of the South African government's policy of transformation, they have decreed that prior to 2019 all Springbok sides must have a 50pc quota of black players in their Test 23. This despite the fact that there might be better white players left on the sidelines.

I cannot quite understand how World Rugby sits idly by and lets a situation like this happen. The bottom line is that after the 2016 season under Alistair Coetzee where they won only four of their 12 matches - a win ratio of 33pc - that it would only get worse and the introduction of racial quotas where the introduction of players who are patently not good enough will do serious damage to South African rugby internally and externally in the short, medium and long term.

Coetzee incredibly held on to his job but his backroom has been buttressed with the arrival of Franco Smith. It is inconceivable that Coetzee could last until 2019 but if he does and the quotas are enforced then the Springboks will be a basket case by the time the World Cup comes around. If Ireland can do what they are supposed to do in Pool A and win it then they have the best chance that they have ever had of getting to a semi-final. Have we heard that one before?

Whatever financial incentives were put in place to entice Schmidt to stay with Ireland until the World Cup in 2019 were only the half of it. This is unfinished business. This coming World Cup will define Joe Schmidt. I don't think he will get caught short again this time. The draw, no matter what he says, has given them a great opportunity to fulfil their potential.

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