The merry-go-round nature of the French national side’s coaching appointments and players selections over the last 10 years has left them in a terrible state. In every one of their games in this Championship thus far, France’s players have performed as if they have never met before, and as bad as their results might seem, they could have been a lot worse.
I’m not as convinced as other people are by their dominant win over an understrength Scotland side two weeks ago; Finn Russell, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg all missed that Test, and without three of their best players, Gregor Townsend’s team looked bereft of purpose or a cutting edge. The game was also in France, which was an important factor; Les Bleus are a different proposition in the Stade de France and Scotland don’t travel well. If that game had taken place in Murrayfield and Scotland were injury free, the scoreline wouldn’t have flattered France at all (win, lose or draw).
The quality of players that France are producing has dropped considerably for several years in a row now, but constantly rotating their squad hasn’t helped. In this tournament alone, they have had a different combination in every Test at half-back, in midfield and in the back three. The only consistency of selection has come in their pack, but they haven’t exactly played out of their skins.
The French team in general appear soulless (first half against Wales notwithstanding) and it’s difficult to imagine any sense of unity or familiarity developing among the players as long as they have to line out alongside different faces every game. Joe Schmidt gets criticised for being a conservative selector, but when you look at the disjointed nature of the sides that France have put out game-to-game, you can understand his desire to maintain cohesion.
A prominent feature of this year’s Six Nations has been England’s ability to find space in the opposition backfield through a range of different kicks. As much as Ireland were exposed in this regard by Eddie Jones’ side, they were nowhere near as bad as France at getting their back three to cover this space, and that’s largely down to Jacques Brunel picking players out of position.
In France’s first game against Wales, Yoann Huget and Maxime Médard were selected at 11 and 15 respectively, which wasn’t an issue, as both players have experience playing in those jerseys at club and international level. The problem was that Damian Penaud (an outside centre and an inexperienced one at that) was picked on the right wing and Huget put in a performance that Charlie Chaplin would have been proud of:
Things went from bad to worse in this area for France when they played England, with Penaud being retained on the right wing, Gaël Fickou (another midfielder by trade) getting picked on the left wing and Huget shifting to full-back. There were numerous instances of calamitous backfield cover from the French in their clash with England, but the two examples below stand out for the sheer amount of mistakes made by the French in the space of a couple of seconds in each:
Thomas Ramos started at 15 against Scotland to remedy France’s ongoing woes in the backfield, but with Penaud still playing out of position on the right wing, Adam Hastings targeted him and the outcome was the same as before:
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton haven’t been in vintage form in this tournament, but Ireland have gotten change out of putting the ball in behind Teddy Thomas, Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa in the past, so you can bet the house on them doing the same to Penaud, and having a packed Aviva Stadium screaming at him every time he makes a blunder won’t do wonders for the confidence of a gifted, albeit young, player.
With a green half-back pairing, France will struggle to get out of their own half if Ireland can keep putting the ball down into their 22. Add to that the likely competition from James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony on the French throw, and a territory-based game plan for Ireland makes sense. We’ve seen them execute these tactics in the past, and while it’s not a thing of beauty, if it exploits the weak points of the other team, it’s definitely the right idea.
The Fallacy Of Rope-A-Dope
Ireland’s meetings with France have followed the same uncomfortable pattern for years now; they build scoreboard pressure on the French through structured phase-play attack and shots at goal, and then fail to land the knockout blow in the second half due to bad option-taking, handling errors and poor ball security in contact and on the ground:
The knock-on effect this has is that it revitalises France, and when they bring their enormous forward replacements off the bench, Ireland have to put in a monumental physical effort in the closing stages that wouldn’t have been necessary if they had gone for the jugular from the get-go.
That’s the drawback to building a lead slowly through shots at goal and then hoping to strike in the third quarter; when it works, it kills the opposition’s spirit and makes the endgame easier, but when it doesn’t go to plan, there is a noticeable momentum shift, and France are a nightmare to play against when the wind is in their sails. As dreadful as French sides can be, they always have players who can score a try from nothing.
This happened to Ireland last year, and they had to rely on a miracle drop goal from Johnny Sexton to get them out of jail. Ireland found getting over the whitewash in Rome challenging because of the disruption Italy caused at the lineout and on the floor, and worryingly for Ireland, France were effective at stealing Scotland’s throws and slowing their ruck ball down two weeks ago.
With a six-day turnaround between Sunday’s game and their final Six Nations Test against Wales in the Principality Stadium, Ireland can’t afford to make hard work of France this time round. They have a tendency to falter at vital moments and fall asleep for periods of matches, but 80 minutes of concentration will be required on Sunday if they want to either win this match or be in with a shout of beating Warren Gatland’s side next week.
As poorly-coached as France have looked in recent weeks, they can still take a defence apart with the athletes that they have in their back line. Their style of attack can be politely described as staccato; there’s no real shape to it, it’s just individuals going out and acting on their own:
The concern that Ireland have is that even though those individuals don’t sing off the same hymn sheet, they have have buckets of pace and excellent footwork. It’s easy to devise a defensive strategy when you know what the opposition are going to do, even if they are highly effective at whatever that is. When your opponent is unpredictable, however, it’s a headache for a coach to analyse, and despite this fixture being at home for Ireland, they won’t want to give the French any opportunities to grow into the game.
The other aspect of France’s back play that Ireland need to focus on is the manner in which they have used Mathieu Bastareaud. Whatever about failing to put any discernible structure on their team’s attack, the French management have at least realised that Bastareaud attracts defenders and they have used him as a decoy/distributor to create space elsewhere in this Championship:
As mentioned before, Ireland can be stretched when the opposition get the ball into the five-metre channel, and if they have defenders tied up with Bastareaud, it’s going to make defending that space even trickier.
The decision-making from Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose is going to have to be first-rate: if they drift off Bastareaud when he’s actually the recipient of a pass from a player inside him, he’ll pinball his way through the defensive line, doing untold damage before he’s hauled to ground, but if they overcommit to the Toulon centre when the ball goes to someone else instead, Huget, Penaud or Ramos will be in open country down the touch line.
Teeing It Up
As discussed earlier in this post, Ireland have gotten into the habit of letting France off the hook when a comprehensive win is on offer (with the RWC 2015 pool game being the only exception). Maybe it’s a mental hang-up from being hockeyed by them for decades, but when it comes to facing France, Ireland have to start playing what’s in front of them and recognise that, at present, they are a better team overall. That might sound arrogant, but Ireland have shown France deference for far too long now.
As I said last year, there’s no substitute for the confidence that Ireland take from beating France; 13 months ago, it kick-started a Grand Slam, and although a clean sweep is no longer possible this year, Ireland do need a shot in the arm if they are to have any hope of beating Wales the following week. Cardiff has been a tough place for Ireland to go lately, and victory over their long-time tormentors could catapult them towards an unexpected win in the final round of the Championship.