Sunday 17 February 2019

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt gets calls right in difficult balancing act

Front-row gamble the only possible weak point in coach's strategy

Our heavenly Father is the only one who knows whether Cian Healy will last 30 seconds or the whole World Cup tournament
Our heavenly Father is the only one who knows whether Cian Healy will last 30 seconds or the whole World Cup tournament
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In the lead-up to the 1995 World Cup it was seen as the archetypal Paddy joke. We would be playing the All Blacks and Wales in Ellis Park in Johannesburg which sits 6,000 square feet above sea level.

We had a cunning plan - our base camp would be in Kilkenny which is three feet below sea level. 

We would laugh it off at press conferences - funny old Irish, ha ha hee hee. We did not need altitude training, we thought, until we found the burn in our lungs in the last 20 minutes of matches made it impossible to accomplish the simplest of tasks. At least I was there though.

Surviving the training camp was one of my finest accomplishments. I had pulled my calf doing track work in the lead-up to the very low-altitude training camp in Kilkenny - I was gone. I would not make my third World Cup. Two weeks of horror training - I did not stand a chance.

The fact that I made it came down to a number of factors - dumb luck being one and the fact that I hired a private masseur twice a day to keep the calf muscle loose. Our medical team knew nothing about it and miraculously I survived to the last day of official training.

We would have an open session on Sunday morning and disperse. A big crowd turned up so it was decided to play a game of league with full-on tackling.

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The game would only last for 10-15 minutes and it was pretty uneventful until Eric Elwood made a half-break and put me into space 80 metres out with everyone caught square. I had eight-ten metres on the closest chasers who had yet to turn - suddenly a spark of excitement - a chase. Nearly every f***er on the opposition turned to chase me down - anyone else and they would have let 'em go.

Possession

In a Test match or even any high-level training, it is incredible how little time you have to think while in possession of the pill. As I got to the halfway line I could hear this voice in my head. It was like Alec Guinness' character Ben Kenobi in 'Star Wars' - he wasn't urging me to 'use the force Luke'. I listened, he said, 'Make the plane Franno - make the plane'. I could feel the pressure on the calf and I throttled back, arced into a semi-circle and flicked it to Simon Geoghegan who scored a try of utter irrelevance.

Two minutes later, all proceedings came to a halt and all the way back to the airport Geoghegan called me a 'lazy f***er'. 'Yes I am, but I am on the plane'.

There are two rules when it comes to World Cup squads. Rule number one - make the plane at all costs. Rule number two - don't forget rule number one.

Get on the plane because a yawning chasm of oblivion is to be your portion if you don't get on it. World Cups come once every four years - as a rugby player they are the ultimate. If you are not in the squad - well, where are you?

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A few of the squad in 1995 got injured and a few guys on reserve saw us off that day. All of them had to reverse every natural instinct in their body when they wished us all well for the tournament.

In sport, disappointment tracks the steps of hope and back then just as now the strife and torment of missing out weighs heavily on the players who were omitted.

While I had sympathy for the guys who did not make it - they simply did not feature in any of my thoughts or the thoughts of the squad as the airplane took off for Cape Town. Twenty-six of us had made the plane and everything else was inconsequential.

The 31 who were named last Tuesday are not on the plane yet and I suspect there will be another injury or two in Twickenham. All of the players who were left behind were reserve strength.

No matter what - Ireland will not lose to Canada or Romania. The reserve squad will do their job in these matches and contribute. Andrew Trimble, if he had been fit and playing rugby for the last eight months would have been the second winger selected in the 31. There are doubts about how fully recovered and match-fit he is.

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These are not small margins - they are big margins. If a winger is carrying an injury or is only at 85pc, particularly at a World Cup, he will be found out and exposed. A half a metre off the pace can mean a try or two - 14 points. The losing margin was only six last week.

Trimble's redoubtable attributes and steely determination are a prime component for a squad like Ireland's but he finds the fickle finger of fate points at him - no ticket.

I would be surprised if all of our wingers come through unscathed - but would Schmidt not pick Trimble again for the same reason he didn't pick him for the original squad? Isaac Boss doesn't make it, not because he isn't good enough but because Schmidt seems to have serious misgivings about his midfield. Luke Fitzgerald did not have a decisive or convincing performance at 13 last Saturday and so Darren Cave who can play 12 or 13 gets an improbable ticket - he could prosper, he is a decent player.

It says something about our propping strength and the damage that imports are doing to all provincial rosters that literally our entire stock of props have come from Leinster or formerly from Leinster.

Our heavenly father is the only one who knows whether Cian Healy will last 30 seconds or the whole tournament. 'Gee Shucks' doesn't gamble much and will have picked Healy on the best medical advice and clutch instinct. At this stage such is Jack McGrath's progression that there is not much between them. And so the logic to the front-row call will be convoluted and may be problematic.

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The decision to leave out Michael Bent is the correct one. The premise that he can scrummage - equally badly - on both sides of the scrum would leave Ireland hopelessly vulnerable. I have watched Nathan White for the last three seasons and despite the wonderful PR he is receiving from the Ireland camp - one thing is certain - he is not an international-class prop and his much-lauded cameos leave me blank as to what he actually does on the park. Marty Moore misses out for the same reason Andrew Trimble did and if there is a propping injury he most likely would still not get the call.

Sausage

Tadhg Furlong is a bear of a boy and if the Leinster sausage machine spent the same amount of time and energy on him as a prospect than they did on Bent and White (sounds like Cockney rhyming slang) Furlong would be twice the player he is and is promising to be. Furlong, if handled properly, could have a long career for Ireland.

Furlong, though, is not a loosehead and neither is White and this is where Ireland's Trojan horse may manifest.

Last February in Rome Sean O'Brien picked up a hamstring injury 15 minutes before the off in the warm-up. Law 3, which governs the number of replacements each team can have, was amended in 2009. Each team now can have eight replacements including an entire front-row replacement with specialist loose and tighthead props on the bench.

If Cian Healy on the morning of a Test match tweaked his neck or hamstring at lineout practice or at the warm-up - Jack McGrath would automatically move up to start. The problem here is that the captain/coach would have to nominate before the match which prop is a replacement for the loosehead side out of the two tightheads you have available.

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If McGrath got injured and one of the replacement tightheads came on - formerly you would have the unedifying spectacle of uncontested scrums and sometimes the team who had the poorer scrum would work this ploy deliberately. "It's not safe for me to play loose head because I'm a tighthead."

Then everybody folds into the scrum and a farce ensues. The rule now is that if a prop cannot scrummage out of position - there will be uncontested scrums but that prop cannot take the field and you have to put one of your back-row players into the front-row. It means that the team replacing the prop will only have 14 players on the pitch.

The likelihood of this happening? Well, I think the scrum will be a big factor in the Italian and French games and we need to know that everyone is healthy and will last the pool stages and hopefully further than that. That scenario is the only chink in Schmidt's gamble.

In relation to the squad selection there were shortages in quality in some areas and Schmidt made the right calls to get the balance right. Schmidt got his squad spot on and if you think that someone was harshly treated - well get over yourself; this is professional rugby at this level.

All aboard now.

Irish Independent

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