Acid Test

Ireland v France - Match Preview (Acid Test)
The Next Generation: After going into a severe decline for the majority of the last decade, French rugby has regained its place as a premier force in the game, with underage talent now being transferred to the senior team. French flair combined with professional fitness standards and defensive organisation have made France a formidable opponent once again, and after falling short against the better teams that they played in 2020, this weekend will give us an idea of just how far Ireland have come along under their new head coach, as well as a measure of their squad depth.

“When Antoine, Virimi and Gaël had the ball, we could feel the panic in the Irish defence,” Ntamack told Midi Olympique.

“It’s nice to see the fear on the Irish faces against French players.”

-Romain Ntamack, October 31st, 2020.

While I can understand the elation that Romain Ntamack and his teammates felt in the aftermath of their victory over Ireland last year (especially when they had been unable to beat them for so long), the above quote is the kind that can come back to bite you when you face the same opponent again less than four months later, not to mention the fact that they were below full-strength and off-colour performance-wise.

In the interim, a number of things have changed, some good and some bad from an Irish perspective. They have become more comfortable with their new game plan, Tadhg Furlong and Garry Ringrose have made successful returns from injury, and crucially, they have home advantage, but they are without several star players, too. Last week’s loss to Wales wasn’t a fair reflection on them because they were down to 14 men for most of the game, and hopefully, they can put that result in the rearview and give a better account of themselves this Sunday.

That doesn’t mean a win is probable, though; France have re-established themselves as World Cup contenders, and on top of having a depleted squad, Ireland have plenty to review from their dispiriting loss at the end of last year’s Championship if they are to make this game more of a contest. France have pushed on from that superb win, with their second-string side almost clinching the Autumn Nations Cup, and after steamrolling Italy in Round 1, they are coming to Dublin with momentum.

Containment

Risk minimisation is considered to be a negative approach to winning a game in any sport, but Ireland conceded four tries in their last meeting with France, and you can’t expect to give up that many scores and win at Test level. Les Bleus have developed a New Zealand-type ability of being able to score from anywhere, so Ireland must reduce the opportunities that they allow them to have.

If we look back at the tries that France scored in those games, the root causes can be summed up as follows:

1) Ineffective and disjointed midfield blitz:

2) Poor sweeper defence:

3) Loose kicking and disorganised chase:

4) Passive midfield defence and lack of a sweeper:

Ireland can prevent the above from happening again by:

  • Blitzing more aggressively in midfield and staying connected.
  • Being more alert to the possibility of short-range kicks in behind the front line.
  • Ensuring that there is an organised line of chasers ready before kicking long.

With regards to Ireland’s defensive tactics, I think it would be in their best interests to disrupt the supply of ball from Mathieu Jalibert to those outside him. Much was made of Andrew Porter’s positioning out on the wing for Antoine Dupont’s try last October, but the French backs are capable of side-stepping the most fleet-footed of players in those situations, so the wisest course of action is to stop the ball from getting out that far altogether.

If Ireland can rush up into the channel between Jalibert and the next player in the attacking line, it will put him off passing for fear of an intercept, he will be forced to cut back infield, where Ireland’s forwards will be waiting to greet him. Being an elusive runner, he could easily dance around players in the tightest of spaces, but Ireland want him taking heavy collisions from the get-go so that fatigue sets in and his decision-making deteriorates.

Dictating Terms

In terms of where and how Ireland want to play on Sunday, they need to be mindful of how lethal France are with ball in hand, and the capacity they have for racking up a couple of tries off limited possession. It goes without saying that it is crucial that handling errors be kept to a minimum, but adjustments to Ireland’s strategy will be necessary for them to avoid a repeat of last Halloween.

If Ireland fall into the same trap of going through multiple phases in the middle third of the pitch for the sake of holding on to possession, they will be playing right into France’s hands. The aggressive nature of the Shaun Edwards blitz made it challenging for Ireland to make any sort of headway with their multi-phase attack, yet they persisted with the tactic (particularly in the second half), burning themselves out in the process:

A knock-on in this scenario is bound to happen sooner or later, and likewise, kicking high and long without a well-organised chase will hand France counter-attacking opportunities.

Preferably, Ireland will want low, scraping kicks that are awkward for France to gather and play from quickly. The below example from Bundee Aki was the right idea, albeit a bit too long:

Although the execution from Aki was off, the idea was right: force the French backs to try to reclaim messy ball from inside their own 10-metre line, in which case, they will either have to kick back to Ireland for a territorial gain, or start throwing the ball around deep in their own half, where a handling error would be extremely costly.

We saw Italy profit from stabbing the ball in behind the front line of the French defence last Saturday, with Ignacio Brex targeting the space vacated by Teddy Thomas in the French right-hand corner:

The ideal outcome of these kick-throughs would be a penalty offence from one of the French back three, such as this indiscretion from Anthony Bouthier from last year:

I think we’re going to see a lot of these types of plays with Ringrose starting at 13 because he provides Ireland with an alternative grubber option which makes it more difficult for France to predict where these kicks are going to come from. Even if Ireland don’t get massive returns from this tactic (i.e. French knock-ons or penalties), it is imperative that they keep the French backs moving in one direction only.

Given how Ireland struggled to break France down in phase play, they might be better served by trying to exploit blind spots in their defensive set-up off first-phase. In their last encounter with France, Ireland used the set-piece to have their centres crash it up, but even though Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw excel at imposing their physicality on opposition defences, this played right into the hands of the out-to-in blitz that France use:

The seam between the forwards and the backs would be worth Ireland’s while to attack because France are inclined to leave space in this area. The below clip shows an end-on view of their defensive set-up as they prepare for an Irish scrum in the 14th minute:

There is a sizeable gap between the scrum and the first defender in the line, and taking into account how eager Dupont is to rush up and put in a big hit on his opposite number, Ireland could make huge gains by using switch plays to attack this channel.

The same applies out of touch, where France’s defensive zeal and the heavyset build of some of their forwards creates a hole between the tail of the lineout and the start of the back line when the opposition employ a maul feint:

With Ringrose’s dexterity and turn of pace, Ireland could profit from targeting this space with scissor movements between him and Billy Burns or reverse passes to the blindside winger. It’s rare to see tries scored from first-phase nowadays, but this could be a starting point for Ireland’s attack to get on the front foot, something they have found hard to do against sterner defences lately.

Champing At The Bit

Ireland’s motivation to win this weekend is two-fold: to knock over an opponent who was less than gracious in victory not too long ago, and to remind everyone that they can still beat the top sides in the world, even with a plethora of injuries. Their loss to Wales last Sunday can be largely attributed to a freak red card occurrence, but if they lose two games in a row, the rest of this Championship becomes quite daunting.

Going up against French teams shouldn’t hold any fear for any of the players in Ireland’s matchday 23 this weekend because they have been competitive with even the more dangerous Top 14 clubs this season. Before Christmas, Ulster went toe-to-toe with Toulouse in Belfast in a one-score defeat, Connacht gave Racing 92 an almighty fright on their home patch, Munster recorded a famous win in Clermont and Leinster eviscerated a potent Montpellier outfit in the Altrad Stadium.

Quality of player isn’t the issue, it’s a matter of performing well as a collective and a game plan falling into place. The frustration of this Ireland squad at not having beaten France or England since 2019 is palpable, and Andy Farrell has spoken of the desire to get back to the same level as those two sides. France will be coming into this game with an eight-day turnaround compared to Ireland’s seven, but you would wonder if trouncing Italy was good preparation for an Irish team who have a chip on their shoulder.

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