There have been several false dawns in French rugby throughout the past decade, but there is something different about the clear-out that Fabien Galthié has done since RWC 2019. France gave a good account of themselves in that tournament, and were a moment of ill-discipline away from reaching the semi-finals, but Galthié decided that personnel changes were in order, and wasted no time in axing Yoann Huget, Louis Picamoles, Wesley Fofana, Camille Lopez, Sébastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret and Christopher Tolofua, talented players who had the makings of Test superstars but never quite fulfilled their potential.
The crop of new players who have been introduced have gelled nicely with what remained from the old regime, and with each passing week of the curtailed Six Nations Championship earlier this year, they looked more and more like a team who could go on to become serious contenders to lift the Webb Ellis Cup in 2023, considering their age profile. All the same, they are in the embryonic stages of their development, and they have enough imperfections for Ireland to have a cut off them.
If Andy Farrell’s side can be mindful of France’s strengths, ruthless in exploiting their weaknesses and heed the lessons from their own pummelling at the hands of England, a four-try win isn’t outside the realms of possibility, but it’s a big ask. The French already tripped up once in this competition and won’t make the same mistake twice, so hopefully the prospect of winning the Championship outright is can spur Ireland on to produce a special performance.
Le Petit Generals
Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack were thrown in the deep end of top-flight rugby last year, and despite both displaying flashes of brilliance, they struggled with the pressure that was put on them. Leinster and Ireland profited from this in their meetings with Toulouse and France, but Galthié’s preferred half-back pairing have found their footing and have been two of their country’s star performers in 2020.
Dupont’s decision-making, speed and accuracy of passing and sniping prowess make him one of the form scrum-halves on the planet at present, and he is the catalyst in France’s vibrant attack:
Ireland’s tactic of piling pressure on the opposition 9 when they played Wales is a must for this game; Dupont can’t be given any kind of freedom because he won’t need much of it to determine the outcome this match. Tasking one of their loose forwards with hunting after Dupont would be a wise move by Ireland because he’s not the type of scrum-half who you can sit back and let play.
Ntamack’s all-round play has been superb, but it’s his territorial kicking that will be of concern to Ireland. Andy Farrell’s side endured a nightmare under the high ball and in the backfield, and even though that can be partly attributed to Eddie Jones’ side having multiple kicking threats in their backline, Jacob Stockdale needs to pay close attention to Ntamack’s body language in the seconds before he receives the ball because the Toulouse out-half spent February and March toying with his opponent’s back three players:
Like with Dupont, the Irish forwards would do right to limit Ntamack’s time and space on the ball. I don’t think he has been truly put to the test by any of the sides that have squared off with this year (with the exception of the HIA subbing in Murrayfield), and that could work against him if Ireland make life uncomfortable for him. If Ireland can also repeat the ferocious jackalling work that we saw against the Azzurri and deny France possession, it will reduce the influence that the French half-backs can exert on the game.
The surprising thing about Shaun Edwards’ overhaul of France’s defence hasn’t been how drastically he changed it, but more so how quickly the change happened. New coaches normally require a settling-in period where there are obvious teething problems (see Wales), but from the off, France’s line speed, tackle completion rate and general enthusiasm off the ball have been light years ahead of anything we have seen from them over the last 10 years:
It is rare that you see Owen Farrell or Dan Biggar dropping balls and forcing passes like this, but this is a worry for Ireland, because without Garry Ringrose to act as a second distributor, Ireland are heavily reliant on Johnny Sexton as their main playmaker.
As effective as a blitz defence can be, it’s not without its shortcomings. When players race off the line at different speeds, there are often gaps left between them that can be exploited with delayed passes. This can be seen in the below example, when France were guilty of having dog-legs in their defensive line that Italy capitalised on:
The other downside to blitz defending from a French perspective is that because their players aren’t used to doing it at club level, it takes its toll on them physically, and they lagged badly in the final quarter against Italy:
If CJ Stander or Bundee Aki are tackled this softly, they won’t hesitate to power through contact, and we saw against Wales and Italy that Ireland are looking to offload more than in previous years.
Galthié’s backline selections have left France with defensive weak points on an individual, too. Gaël Fickou is a natural midfielder and there are significant differences between defending on the wing compared to in the centre. Ireland didn’t get a decent run at an out-of-position Jonathan Joseph earlier in the year in the manner that I anticipated because of their own inaccuracies and the dominance of the English pack, but if they can generate front-foot ball and use complex shapes in the 15-metre channel this weekend (as well as using some of the switch plays outlined on this blog before), they should be able to draw a few bad reads and missed tackles from Fickou.
The drawback to the aforementioned squad cull by Galthié has left France short of tall timber in the second row. Bernard le Roux is a 6 by trade so his jump peak isn’t particularly high because he is shorter than most players in his position at Test level, and Paul Willemse is a heavyset tighthead lock which means he’s relatively slow to get up in the air. Neither of them are great lineout options at Test level, and although Charles Ollivon compensates for them with his height (6’6½”) and athleticism, the lineout is still a weak point for Les Bleus.
Julien Marchand is an inexperienced international, and when the opposition have put their biggest forwards in his field of vision in this competition, it has severely affected his throwing:
Throws to the middle or the tail are an issue for him as well, with England and Italy forcing him to botch his technique, causing the ball to wobble in its path:
Tadhg Beirne and Peter O’Mahony are two of the best defensive lineout jumpers in Europe, and with a centre on the left wing and a 13 who isn’t quick on the turn, there are opportunities for Ireland to put the ball in behind France to either find touch or force kick-returns so that they can put pressure on the French throw. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will have to improve their kicking out of hand if this is to happen, though, and Sexton in particular needs to put his Twickenham horrorshow in the rear-view.
France’s lineout was been their Achilles’ heel in this tournament before it was postponed, and if Ireland are going to pull off a win this Saturday, then they need to target it. The French backline is too dangerous to allow them clean possession from the set-pieces, and as impressive as Ireland were defensively against Scotland and Wales, there are only so many charging runs from Virimi Vakatawa that your defensive line can withstand before it begins to crack.
Into The Furnace
Without a home crowd, the trip to Paris isn’t as intimidating as usual, but France’s performance against Wales last week was frightening enough on its own. In terms of inspiration, Ireland could do worse than follow the example of Martin Johnson’s England team, who were in a similar situation back in 2010. A win was considered a formality for the French on the final day of the tournament that year, but England rattled them with an early Ben Foden try, and it ended up being a much tighter affair than expected.
The experience of Ireland’s older players is going to be crucial, because well as they might start, every team has a purple patch, and the pendulum swings with more cruelty in the Stade de France than anywhere else in the world. There is bound to be an improvement from what we have seen from them so far under Farrell, but maintaining patience and control when the heat comes on is challenging when playing on French soil.
Key to this is the demeanour of Sexton as the game progresses. After losing his temper numerous times he was handed the captain’s armband at Leinster, he was calm and measured in his dealings with Romain Poite against Wales, and this was of enormous benefit to his side. ‘Fire in the belly, ice in the mind’ is easier said than done, but if Ireland can’t ramp up their aggression and intensity levels while keeping a cool head, Saturday night will be a long one for them.