Saturday 21 April 2018

Neil Francis: If I hear anyone talking about blooding players for World Cup, I will personally blood them

Neil Francis at the 1987 World Cup
Neil Francis at the 1987 World Cup
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

There are, I believe, some semi-finals this weekend. A mere sideshow! Munster and Ulster have both got a good chance but deep in the back of everyone's mind is the knowledge that the only contest worth playing in is on in September. The trick is to be there and the clever guys realise that the currency of now holds sway at the Bank of Joe.

Two good end-of-season performances might just be enough to clinch the deal for the Rugby World Cup 2015. It doesn't take a huge amount of deductive reasoning to figure out that a worthy end-of-season performance will be good enough to get you into Joe Schmidt's 48-man squad to be announced in mid-June.

Ireland's first RWC camp starts on June 29 - so when exactly do the fringe players think they have an opportunity to signal their ambition? This week's semi-finals possibly and hopefully next week's final in the Kingspan are a good time to make an announcement.

The World Cup squad will contain the nucleus of the Ireland squad that annihilated Scotland 40-10 last March. A Scotland side which was backboned by a Glasgow side that look to be strutting their way to a Guinness Pro12 title. Schmidt was in that very lucky position of having his best 23 players available, fit and in form.

Schmidt had this amazing facility with Leinster to be able to put the best side on the park at the right time of the season.

Certainties

When he announces his 31-man squad on September 6 after the RWC warm-up games, you can say - subject to injury - that numbers 1 to 21 are all cast-iron certainties to go.

Ian Madigan and Felix Jones have a good chance and so you have a scramble for eight places which will be an unseemly, undignified and white-eyed helter-skelter of a scrap for the players in contention - and the fight starts in Scotstoun tomorrow. The process of elimination will be nothing less than fascinating.

Back in 1986/87, I had played every game for Leinster that season. I was in the Ireland squad all season - nobody in my position either got injured or played badly. At 22 years of age, patience was something that eluded me - something would have to give and so when a final trial minus the starters in the Five Nations was called for in April, I welcomed it.

A simple equation: either repeat my accountancy exams or go to the first Rugby World Cup. I didn't have to hire Stephen Hawking as a personal consultant. I was going.

My chances improved when Ciaran Fitzgerald was announced as captain of the side I was picked for. Whatever else about the selection, Fitzy would ensure the team I was on was organised and motivated. The only fly was that, icon and superb player that he was, there were some days where if Fitzy fell out of a boat he wouldn't hit water.

As a 22-year-old, I suffered from a rare affliction called enthusiasm and I badgered Fitzy all the way to Ravenhill, giving the former Lions captain darts lessons all the way to kick-off. More than anything else in the world I wanted to go to New Zealand and Australia. I had a stormer - there was no way they could not pick me. I finished off that campaign as Test No 8.

Should they have brought me? Probably not. I had no Test experience; I had no experience at representative level at No 8. Years on you realise that talent, whether latent or burgeoning, is of little value at a World Cup without experience.

A World Cup just isn't the place to hone your skills, fashion instinct or chisel a personality. Every player that is picked already has to have all the requisites in abundance. If I hear one person talking about blooding such and such a young player, I will personally blood them. You bring your most experienced players who can perform from past example.

The saying goes that the years teach much which the days never know. Anyone strong on talent but short on experience ain't going. Schmidt will have to make some agonising decisions to arrive at his fringe - the Magnificent Eight.

The composition will probably go 18/13 forwards to backs, and so extras will be two more props, one hooker, one second-row, one back-row cover, one scrum-half, one out-half and one three-quarter player. Most of the Magnificent Eight will be playing tomorrow or Saturday. Leinster's awful season will hit their fringe players hoping to get in on the wave of another quality Leinster programme.

Loose-head is certain to be Dave Kilcoyne, tight-head not so simple. I would not pick Michael Bent. I would not pick him on the precept that he is ambidextrous. The fact that he scrummages badly on both sides of the scrum is not a basis for selection.

Stephen Archer has had too many awkward moments and Nathan White has not played nor is likely to play any worthwhile rugby and so we go against the prevailing wisdom of the last couple of paragraphs and pick Tadhg Furlong because he is the best available. He hasn't played much rugby in the back end of this season but might get a Baa-Baas shot.

Hooker is simple too - Richardt Strauss is beginning to look like the buzz bomb of a year or two ago.

Second-row is compelling in the sense that contenders Donnacha Ryan and Dan Tuohy have been long-term injury casualties and we all know what happens to these type of players - they either get injured again, or free of player fatigue, they go on a rich run of form. Mike McCarthy will lose out because Leinster's tight play apart from the Toulon game has been average.

I think Rhys Ruddock will be unlucky here too - injuries and not enough game time and I think Chris Henry will power through.

Tommy O'Donnell still has a chance if Munster get to the final to impress again. He was very good this year for the games he played in the Six Nations but if Henry had been fit, the Ulster player would have played in those.

If both Irish teams get to the final, the 80-minute skirmish between the two would be utterly absorbing, with the winner probably taking all.

Scrum-half is simple too - you don't think about Paul Marshall, Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion - you pick Isaac Boss because he is a smart, canny, experienced player who brings the Ronseal factor as a third-choice scrum-half.

For Ian Madigan, the end of the season couldn't come quickly enough and the haunting prospect throughout the summer is that his versatility might not save him. The rhino golden boot table has him on top with a pretty good 47 kicks from 54 attempts at 87pc, with Ian Keatley and Paddy Jackson nowhere in sight. The thing is that Johnny Sexton is a long way off being right.

Racing Metro are seventh in the Top 14, currently out of the play-off picture, but all the fixtures fall well for them on the last day of the regular season. Sexton needs them not to qualify to make sure he has a good break before camp starts. Racing even dropped him last week - good news for Ireland.

If Sexton is carrying a niggle or takes another hit to the head, we still don't need Stephen Hawking to tell us where we will be. Schmidt used Keatley in the Italian game with success. Jackson has been playing really well since he came back from injury and again if Ulster and Munster made it through, it would be a delicious match-up.

The point is that Schmidt won't pick Madigan to run his show and that could be a key determinant in either Jackson or Keatley getting in ahead and based on form in the semis and possibly final of the Pro12.

A glut of three-quarter cover gives cause for sleepless nights. Simon Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Dave Kearney, Keith Earls, Gordon D'Arcy, Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden. An unpleasant prospect to leave any of them out. Kearney and Trimble were brilliant in Schmidt's first Six Nations but neither have played for Ireland this season. Felix Jones is vulnerable here and Zebo, Earls and Cave are all playing at the business end and playing well.

At least one of them will produce a performance in the next week or so that will say - Joe, I'm your man.

A Pro12 medal really is a secondary issue here and just around now I suggest is the time to put in an extraordinary performance to ensure a ticket to the big show.

Irish Independent

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