Heading to Paris has been a daunting proposition for Irish teams in years gone by, but with France in a state of flux at present, there is an expectation that this Saturday could be the start a successful Six Nations campaign for Joe Schmidt’s squad. France are coming off the back of a woeful November series where they were well-beaten by New Zealand, lost narrowly to a Springbok side in decline and suffered the ignominy of a draw with Japan.
The increase in big-money southern hemisphere signings in their club game continues to hamper their national side, and they are missing some front-line players (Morgan Parra, Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana, Damian Penaud, Noa Nakaitaci) through injury, not to mention the puzzling omissions of Louis Picamoles and Gaël Fickou. On top of that, France have lost their mental edge over Ireland in recent years, with 2010 being the last time they enjoyed a landslide victory over the men in green. Since then, every encounter between the two has been competitive, with Ireland going so far as putting France to the sword in the second half of their pool clash at RWC 2015.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting
In light of Guy Novès being jettisoned, there is an element of the unknown to the French team that Ireland will play this weekend, both in terms of personnel and tactics. Jacques Brunel hasn’t done particularly well in his time with Bordeaux Bègles; last season, they finished 11th in the Top 14 and failed to qualify from their pool in the Champions Cup, and when he left them, they were in the bottom half of the table of their domestic league and had lost 2 of their 4 Challenge Cup games. What is probably of more relevance is what he did the last time he was in charge of a Six Nations team.
His overall win-loss ratio with the Azzurri in the Six Nations wasn’t any better than Nick Mallett’s as he tried to get them to play more expansive rugby. It was a departure from the forward-oriented game plan that Mallett believed played to their strengths, but it allowed them to achieve their joint-best finish in 2013, with two wins (including their first victory over Ireland) and three losses (one of them being a narrow defeat to England in Twickenham). They were the most adventurous team in the tournament that year, playing a positive brand of rugby, counterattacking from anywhere and keeping the ball in hand while holding width. With the players they have at their disposal, France could be lethal if they play that type of rugby.
Playing with verve requires a decent platform to start with, and the French scrum was dominant in their last fixture:
Scrummaging is a weak point for Japan, but that’s still a powerful effort from the French eight, and it gives Louis Picamoles acres of space to run into. France caused Ireland a bit of discomfort in this area last year, and with Brunel selecting Eddy Ben Arous (6’), Jefferson Poirot (5’11½”), Rabah Slimani (5’10”) Cedate Gomes Sa (6’1”) and Dany Priso (6’) in his squad, there’s the possibility that the French props can get underneath their taller Irish counterparts and drive up to draw penalties out of them.
Brunel’s choice of back rowers may provide some insight into the style of rugby he wants France to play. For a number of years now, France have opted for flankers who specialise in spoiling opposition lineouts (Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Alexandre Lapandry, Bernard Le Roux etc.), but Brunel has veered towards broken-field runners in his back row selections. Yacouba Camara (6’4½”) and Anthony Jelonch (6’4”) both have the height to be aerial pests, but they are more renowned for their Tom Croft-like pace and footwork in wider channels than lineout steals.
Sekou Macalou is one of the most athletic forwards in the northern hemisphere, and with blistering dynamism like this, it’s easy to see why Stade Français have experimented with playing him on the wing:
Kevin Gourdon is a linkman openside that France have been missing for years and provides a connection between forwards and backs that is essential for free-flowing rugby:
Choosing these four (along with groundhog Wenceslas Lauret) might represent a possible change in tactics. With quick loose forwards and backs like Matthieu Jalibert and Virimi Vakatawa, France have the tools to play with flair, in contrast to the set-piece focused, grinding attack that we saw from them under Philippe Saint-André and, to a lesser extent, Guy Novès.
There are other dangerous players in the French back line besides Jalibert and Vakatawa that Ireland will need to be wary of, even if they play as individuals instead of a unit. Anthony Belleau has enjoyed a meteoric rise to Test rugby over the last 12 months and has a similar creative streak to Finn Russell. He’s not an authoritative string-puller like Johnny Sexton, but his willingness to try something unexpected makes him a tough prospect to defend against:
Further out, Teddy Thomas’ pace and capacity for beating defenders one-on-one are on par with Super Rugby wingers. The error-strewn nature of France’s attacking play prevents him from getting the ball in space as often as he should, but he’s still able to make scorching line breaks down the touch line:
Ireland’s defensive system sometimes sacrifices width for the sake of crowding the opposition midfield to put their passing under pressure and shut their space down, but giving Thomas any kind of room in the five-metre channel is asking for trouble. Belleau and Thomas are just two of the many talented players that France have behind the scrum; Brunel has more than the bare bones of a quality side in the squad he has named, and any team with strong set-pieces and electric backs can be difficult to handle.
Despite the potential threat that France could pose with Brunel at the helm, there is an opportunity for Ireland to catch them cold. Whenever a new coach takes charge of a team, there is a settling-in period where the players adapt to their methods and style of play. This transitional stage tends to be characterised by insipid performances, especially with international teams where the windows of preparation are that much shorter than club level where a coaching ticket have all of preseason to drill new systems into their squad. Taking on board a plethora of information and trying to put a coach’s instructions into practice out on the pitch is highly demanding and it’s hard not to keep doing things the same way out of muscle memory alone.
England’s first outing under Eddie Jones was a turgid 15-9 win over Scotland at Murrayfield, where they produced a tactically muddled display that only contained glimpses of some of the things that the controversial Australian wanted from them (an attacking system that utilised two distributors at 10 and 12, increased competition at the breakdown and in the lineout). It wasn’t until the Wales Test (their fourth game of that year’s Championship) that they really combusted, dominating Warren Gatland’s side in every phase of play for the first 40 minutes.
Ireland are lucky that they are playing France at the start of the tournament and not the end, because Brunel is a man with a good track record who got some big one-off results with meagre resources when he was in charge of Italy, but he won’t have his players singing off the same hymn sheet instantly, and notwithstanding the strengths that France have, Ireland are clever enough to take advantage of a team who are undergoing a big change.
A salient feature of France’s draw with Japan in November was their abysmal defence. A combination of factors led to them conceding three soft tries against a Japanese team who lost heavily to every other Tier 1 side they played in 2017: a lack of synchronisation, no apparent communication (verbal or non-verbal) and abject tackling attempts on an individual level. The best example of all of these traits being evident was Lomano Lemeki’s try in the 42nd minute:
France’s defensive positioning at the start of this phase puts them in a tricky situation to begin with. They haven’t numbered up properly on the side that Japan choose to attack, and they are spaced quite narrowly, as seen above.
There is enough time to cover the space they have left unchecked if they scramble quickly enough and communicate their intentions to one another, but the actions of Louis Picamoles, Henry Chavancy and Damian Penaud (circled below in red, yellow and blue respectively) creates the space that Lafaele races through to score:
Picamoles is the first to put his team under pressure by biting down on the decoy run by Shota Horie (Japan #2) far too easily:
Having a forward run a hard, lateral line back infield to fix defenders was a ploy Japan used throughout the game (and in some cases the decoy runner actually received the ball to good effect), but in the example with Picamoles, it’s plain to see that Horie isn’t going to get the ball because he has run in front of his scrum-half almost before the ball is passed. A player of Picamoles’ experience shouldn’t have been fooled by what Horie did and recognised that the ball was going further out. By running infield and then changing direction to turn away from the ruck, the French number eight forced the defenders either side of him to stay with him until he readjusted.
If he had drifted across instead of running straight ahead and then turning, the players outside him could have drifted across sooner and closed down the space more quickly. It wasn’t the only time this happened in the game; Judicaël Cancoriet did the exact same thing earlier in the build-up to the try in question, and even though Picamoles and Cancoriet won’t feature this weekend, poor defensive reading was a collective problem among the French pack in November. If they keep clustering on a screen player without thinking, Ireland could create plenty of space for themselves by positioning CJ Stander one-out and then passing the ball behind him to a waiting distributor.
The more glaring system error in this passage, though, comes from Chavancy and Penaud. Chavancy chooses to run cross-field, while Penaud chooses to break the line in an attempt to make a spot tackle:
In general, all of the players in a team adhere to a specific defensive system or style (for example, they all drift across or they all rush off the mark in straight lines), but going by how each player acts on his own in the process of conceding this try, it would seem that France didn’t have any system in place.
If Penaud was going to blitz, he could have indicated to Chavancy to do the same with a simple hand gesture when it became obvious that the ball was going as far as outside centre in order to let both of them pressurise the pass, or if Chavancy wanted Penaud to drift across the same way he was going to, he could have let a roar at him to do so as the play was progressing. Neither player looked interested in what the other was doing, and the dog-leg that was created was asking to be exploited:
If we freeze-frame it at 41:28, the disjointed nature of the French defence becomes clearer:
As marked by the coloured lines above, Picamoles, Chavancy, and Penaud have their shoulders pointed towards roughly the same location, meaning that the spaces either side of the trio are susceptible to an inside pass to Picamoles’ left or a skip pass to Penaud’s right. The attempted tackle from Chavancy turned out to be lamentable anyway, but what preceded it demonstrated an inability on the part of the French players to cover ground evenly.
Although the three above-mentioned players practically gifted Japan the try, the contribution (or lack thereof) from François Trinh-Duc warrants closer inspection. Moving the 10 out of the front line of defence is now commonplace at Test level*; most out-halves are much smaller than the forwards who are looking to target them, and it doesn’t make sense to have your chief playmaker getting battered and possibly injured.
However, if they are going to be used as a second-line defender, they at least have to put in some sort of effort if they are the only thing standing between the ball carrier and the whitewash, but Trinh-Duc has absolutely no interest in even trying to make a tackle in this instance:
It’s not an aspect of the game that he has ever been great at, and while he gets away with shying away from it in the Top 14, it doesn’t go unnoticed at the highest level. A couple of years ago, on an episode of The Breakdown, Matt Williams said that defence is usually the best barometer of where a team are spiritually, and in that sense, France are at a low ebb at the moment. Improving their defence is sure to be a priority for Brunel and his coaching ticket, given the weather conditions during the time of year that the Six Nations takes place at, but the above flaws can’t be corrected in a handful of training sessions.
Good organisation can make up for missed tackles and big hits can hide the fact that the defensive line is jagged, but we didn’t see either of these from France against Japan and I would back Schmidt to devise attacking shapes which are intricate enough to expose this. As efficient as Ireland’s mauling was in November, taking a big French pack on in this area wouldn’t be the wisest move.
Ireland would be better-served by going for quick ball off-the-top from the middle and the tail of the lineout, with midfield crashes from Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw off first-phase. Devin Toner and Peter O’Mahony are guaranteed to start, so Ireland should have no issues securing their own lineout ball.
The subsequent phases will likely involve wraparounds, outside-inside moves and, as the game wears on, Jacob Stockdale running support lines off Johnny Sexton’s shoulder (in the same way he did against Argentina) when the French back line are fatigued and their decision-making begins to falter. The sympathetic nature of Nigel Owens’ refereeing should help Ireland execute a multi-phase game plan that pushes the aerobic fitness of the French front five to its limits.
Once Ireland have forced the French pack to cover a lot of ground, the pillar defenders will struggle to realign quickly, and that’s when Ireland can start making ground up the middle, with Conor Murray’s trademark sniping and pick and go’s from (or short passes to) CJ Stander perfect for capitalising on the space that France are inclined to leave around the ruck late on in games.
When Ireland have pulled France’s defence out of shape completely and isolated Teddy Thomas from his centres, that’s when they can put the ball above (or in behind) the Racing 92 winger to keep him and the rest of his team on the back foot, the same way they did three years ago:
Hit The Ground Running
The lift that Irish players and supporters get from beating France in Paris (even a French side in disarray) is greater than the confidence gained from winning against any of the other Six Nations teams home or away. If ever there was a way of kick-starting a successful tournament, getting a win over a once-feared opponent in a stadium that used to be a fortress is it. This time last year, Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes were shattered by a shock loss to a Scottish team who deserved the win on the day. In truth, it’s the only time that Ireland have started a series of games looking undercooked with Schmidt in charge since the 2013 Test v Samoa, and it won’t have been forgotten by any of the players involved.
When Ireland had the Pumas on the ropes in November, they failed to land the knockout blow, and the southern hemisphere side remained competitive as a result. If the same happens with France this weekend, they will have to put in a serious defensive shift against a big pack, the physical toll of which could tell as the Championship progresses. The Stade de France can still be an intimidating venue when the crowd are in full voice, and with 16 players in their matchday squad having less than 10 caps each, surviving a late onslaught may be too big an ask for Ireland.
Earlier this month, Munster learned the hard way how costly a handful of mistakes can be when trying to win on French soil, and Leinster had to hang on for dear life in the second quarter against Montpellier the following week. There will be no shortage of momentum swings in this game either, but Ireland are good enough to come away with a crucial win this Saturday if they can maintain their composure and keep the error count to a minimum.