Before praising Ireland for their convincing win over France yesterday, the scoreline must be put into context. England put nearly 50 points on the same opposition four weeks ago, and although Ireland had enough chances to do the same, they didn’t convert several of them, and it will be a point of contention with their coaching ticket that 25 minutes passed between their first and second tries, on top of the fact that they didn’t register a score after the 58th minute.
At the same time, Ireland looked rejuvenated and played with an energy and clarity of purpose that were sorely missing from their other games in this tournament. Passion is vital to the type of rugby that Ireland play under Joe Schmidt, and the emotional intensity from their players was there for everyone to see yesterday. They were intelligent and skillful as well, but hopefully the lethargy that characterised their performances against England, Scotland and Italy is behind them now.
Ireland’s pack laid the groundwork for this victory, and Simon Easterby deserves a lot of credit for how well-prepared his forwards were. Their aggression in the carry was markedly improved from the previous three Tests, but what was more impressive was how they dictated the terms of contact. They came on to the ball at pace, used footwork before contact to step inside or outside the French tacklers and then pumped their legs for extra yards while getting support from a supporting player latching on in some cases:
Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan and CJ Stander hammered into tacklers all afternoon, and the added effort required to defend this kind of ball-carrying fatigued the French pack noticeably over the course of the game.
Ireland’s clearing out was brutally efficient, and the quick ruck ball that was generated as a result put the visitors through their paces; and by the time Keith Earls scored the bonus point try for Ireland, the French forwards appeared to have nothing left in the tank. Seeing an Irish pack bully their French counterparts in contact would have considered a fairy tale 10 years ago, but the hosts were clearly in the ascendancy in the close-quarters exchanges.
Félix Lambey and Arthur Iturria in particular looked underpowered, and as effective as they are at poaching lineout ball, France sacrificed a huge amount of physicality by choosing both of them. The gamble of doing so didn’t pay off as Ireland’s lineout functioned brilliantly until the replacements came on. Henderson’s familiarity with Rory Best was a point of difference, and Ireland were confident in varying their throws between the front, the middle and the tail throughout the match.
It wasn’t just in attack that Ireland had the measure of France up front; the Irish pack were competitive in almost every tackle, repeatedly attempting to rip the ball out of the French carriers’ hands, and doing so successfully on more than one occasion:
This tactic likely came from extensive video analysis done by Andy Farrell; the number of times that it happened meant that it couldn’t have been improvised. The success rate that Ireland enjoyed from it was a significant factor in France not being able to hold on to the ball until the game was over as a contest.
The technical aspects of Ireland’s forward play were crucial, but they introduced new wrinkles in attack that kept the French second-guessing and more importantly, kept their forwards moving around the park. The gap between the tail of the French lineout and the start of their back line was obviously identified as a weak point by the Irish management, because they attacked this space with different trick plays regularly:
French forwards are used to setting themselves for a maul in these situations in the Top 14, so using misdirection to catch them standing still makes perfect sense. It’s rare that you see a move like the second example shown above being executed as cleanly as it did for Earls’ try, and that absence of mental application from the French is symptomatic of the malaise they are currently in.
Ireland kept France on their toes in phase play, too, with variations on their usual three-man carrying pods catching the French forwards flat-footed:
Garry Ringrose made a massive difference to Ireland’s back play in terms of incision and changing the direction of the attack, and the unpredictable, high-tempo nature of what Ireland did with ball in hand placed enormous demands on the French player’s fitness and concentration levels, and from early on, they were visibly exhausted.
As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is repeating the same act and expecting a different outcome, and Jacques Brunel’s persistence with Damian Penaud on the right wing is mind-boggling. Every team France have faced in this Championship have benefitted from sending kicks down the Clermont centre’s channel, and Ireland couldn’t have asked for an easier target to hit. This was the main reason for Ireland dominating territory in this game, and it’s not often you see a side struggle as badly to get out of their own 22 at Test level as France did.
Up until yesterday, Ireland didn’t get any decent return from their kicking out of hand, but with a player in the opposition ranks who is guaranteed to make a mistake when a bomb comes near him, Ireland’s back line had no trouble finding grass in the backfield. Penaud was exploited frequently by Ireland via a mix of long-range punts, garryowens and grubber kicks:
He wasn’t the only French player who was tormented by Ireland’s tactical kicking; in the 33rd minute, Ireland profited from Thomas Ramos’ positioning and aerial skills by using the same ploy that created Ringrose’s try in Twickenham last year: a forward carry off a lineout followed by an up-and-under from Johnny Sexton. The try was disallowed for a knock-on, but the ease with which Ringrose gathered the ball and skated over the whitewash was alarming from a French perspective:
France’s inability to get out of their own half for large periods of the game wasn’t helped by the lack of control from Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack. The French half-backs were frantic in everything that they did, and even though the ball protection at the base of the ruck from their pack was dreadful, they couldn’t put any sort of shape on their team’s attack and there was no direction or guidance from either of them.
Only once did they test Jordan Larmour under the high ball, and when you remember how much change other teams have gotten out of the Leinster flyer in the air this season, it makes you wonder why they didn’t do it again. France not troubling Ireland in any phase of play in general begs the question as to what Irish weaknesses Jacques Brunel was talking about during the build-up to the match.
Aside from two cheap tries in the endgame when Ireland’s bench had been emptied, France had a few minutes of possession at the start of the second half that they did absolutely nothing with. Brunel was lauded by the media for picking an unchanged team to face Ireland as if consistent selection is a coaching masterstroke, but even with the same line-up, France were rudderless. Dupont and Ntamack have plenty of time to develop into commanding players, but they’re not what France need at the moment, and it would be a bad idea to revert to Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez, given how they underperformed against England.
Brunel’s treatment of Baptiste Serin and Anthony Belleau has been awful, and it’s hard to imagine them playing well under him if they know that he has no faith in them. That’s the problem with France’s revolving door policy of selecting half-backs; everyone gets dropped after a game or two regardless of how they play, and the loss of confidence that ensues means that there’s no one that the coach can turn to for help with steadying the ship. Dupont and Ntamack didn’t crack completely against Ireland, but in a World Cup year where France are in a Pool Of Death, they’re not the answer.
Waiting In The Long Grass
As pleasing as it was to see Ireland back to their best, they have a massive challenge ahead of them this Saturday. Wales’ defence and discipline are streets ahead of France, so Ireland won’t get anywhere near as many point-scoring opportunities as they did yesterday, and the ones that they do get will be all the more difficult to take advantage of. Unlike France, Wales can pass the ball across their back line without making a mistake or running sideways, so not being asked any questions by the French defensively probably wasn’t ideal preparation for what lies ahead.
There’s an underlying theme to Saturday’s fixture between Wales and Ireland, and it relates to something that shouldn’t be used by coaches or players as motivational tools, but it can be useful all the same. Wales ended Ireland’s Grand Slam aspirations in 2015 and Warren Gatland has had no issue with running his mouth about Ireland’s style of play under Schmidt since then; Ireland’s head coach doesn’t normally get flustered, but you can tell the barbs from his fellow Kiwi have gotten under his skin in the past.
The Welsh players will be desperate to see their coach off with silverware, and Ireland are in the enviable position of having nothing to lose (slim hopes of winning the Championship aside). Desperation can lead to nerves, and nerves lead to mistakes, and an expectant home crowd can sometimes put pressure a side instead of inspiring them. Similar to yesterday, a fast start is essential if Ireland are to win in Cardiff, but stranger things have happened, and the Irish players will also want to end Schmidt’s last Six Nations with a bang. Getting one over on a team who have had the beating of them for years now would provide him with the perfect lasting memory of this tournament.