Ireland’s November performances reasserted their position as one of the top sides in international rugby, and their win over Wales last weekend was convincing, but this Saturday is going to be a trial by fire for them. Apart from out-half, they have a stronger team than the one that France dispatched in Halloween of 2020, but players like Rónan Kelleher, Dan Sheehan, Jack Carty and Mack Hansen haven’t yet experienced the white heat of playing France on their home patch.
Ireland have been to the Stade de France before under Andy Farrell, but this is a different challenge as Les Bleus are even more potent now and on a serious high after putting the All Blacks to the sword back in November. The manner in which they dispatched a dogged Italy last week was impressive, but Ireland are bound to be more competitive than they were on their last trip to Paris. Win, lose or draw, it’s going to be a valuable (if trying) learning experience for Ireland ahead of RWC 2023 against the host side, especially without their talismanic captain.
France’s standard attacking shape is the popular 1-3-2-2 with a few interesting wrinkles. When attacking the open side, they position the pod of 3 at first-receiver with their out-half tucked in right behind, and the pods of 2 positioned further out, but deeper than you would normally expect, as in the below image:
Having the 10 positioned directly behind this pod (rather than flatter and to the left as we usually see with this shape) gives them the option of staying out of the opposition view until the last moment, which allows them to slide around the corner and have a cut at the space between the forwards and the backs if the opposition defence push outfield too far too quickly:
If France do decide to go wide, then the depth of their wide pods makes life very difficult for the opposition’s edge defender because it essentially draws them into a kind of No Man’s Land by giving them so much ground that they have to cover and forcing them to go so far up and out (thereby separating them from the rest of the defensive line) because of how tough it is to reach the attackers and pressurise their passing:
It’s hard to know how Ireland should defend against France; if they focus too heavily on the initial pod of 3 and the threat of Romain Ntamack in behind, then they are conceding space and line speed wider out, but if they rush across the pitch to shut the wide space down, then Ntamack or one of the forwards in the 3 pod can go up through the middle of them. Ireland’s main aim defensively in this fixture should be to stop France getting into any sort of rhythm in attack, because they showed back in November that once they do so, they are unstoppable.
I think the best way for Ireland to do this is to shorten their defensive line so that there is no space around the fringes for Ntamack to scythe through and then have their edge defender rush up into the space highlighted in red below as soon as Antoine Dupont touches the ball:
Getting a player into the space between the two wide pods will discourage France from going wide due to the risk of an intercept or man-and-ball tackle, and Argentina demonstrated that getting a defender into this zone against them can be highly disruptive:
That being said, this tactic is not without its drawbacks. If France outflank this last defender, they will be in acres of space, and Ireland’s scramble defence may not cover the ground quickly enough.
It also leaves Ireland quite vulnerable to a cross-field kick or a diagonal low kick towards the corner, but if Hugo Keenan can position himself wider out than normal and start moving towards the touch-line as soon as the edge defender shoots up, it should help cover the potential kick into this space. Ireland must be mindful not to be too focused on the open side when it comes to defence, though, as France overload the short side regularly to good effect, with Dupont’s identification of space and sniping being particularly dangerous in these situations.
More important than stopping France from making headway when they are in possession is denying them the ball in the first place. They have an enormous front five, which gives them the upper hand in physicality in the set-piece and collisions around the pitch, but the downside is that they can be somewhat slow to arrive to breakdowns and get low enough to secure the ball, especially in the third quarter:
France also have a habit of under-resourcing rucks in order to keep extra numbers on their feet in attack. It’s understandable that a team who want to play expansively do this, but there are times when they don’t get the balance right and they end up not securing the ball or providing the opposition with opportunities to slow their ruck speed down:
This is where Andy Farrell needs to give his players full license to go after breakdown steals every chance they get, as they cannot afford to defend against France for long periods. Ireland have one of the best breakdown jackals in Europe in their ranks in Tadhg Beirne, and with Peter O’Mahony on the bench, they can cause France more problems on the floor in the second half.
On the other side of the ball, the speed of some of the French forwards and their slow lateral movement is something Ireland should look to target. This tends to be more of an issue for them in the second half of games, and we can see in the examples below how their tight five can get caught out badly when a runner changes direction, or how they can take several seconds to get up off the deck and make their way back into the defensive line when their opponent is going through multiple phases:
Because of the gaps that France can leave in this area, I think we’re going to see less of Ireland putting their forwards in the wider channels than in November or against Wales, and instead having them carry closer in to exploit this space, either by taking short passes from 9 or inside passes from Joey Carbery or another forward at first-receiver so that the defender closest to the breakdown is drawn away from it.
France’s blitz defence makes it difficult to win collisions or find space out wide in phase play, but their maul defence strategy should give Ireland windows of opportunity to get in behind them. Their approach towards counter-driving is to shear up on the infield side of the maul and then push sideways aggressively in order to use the touch-line to their advantage by putting their opponent into a position whereby if they try to go forward, they are likely to be pushed into touch, leaving them with no choice but to take it to ground themselves:
It’s a clever ploy, but Argentina used it against them back in November by breaking quickly down the short side once France had bound their forwards in and started to shove:
You can see in both examples above how Argentina have the advantage of the French forwards being slow to react to the break due to their vision being impeded from being bound into the maul, and if Jamison Gibson-Park can identify these openings in time and be on the same wavelength as Mack Hansen and Andrew Conway, Ireland could gain a lot of yardage down the touch-line.
Regardless of the result, it’s crucial that Ireland are competitive for the full 80 minutes on Saturday, as if they are serious about going far in the next World Cup, this is the last chance they will get to play the hosts on their home patch before that tournament starts. COVID might have disrupted France’s preparations for this Championship, but it’s worth remembering that they nearly won the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup and a series in Australia last year with mostly non first-choice players.
A combination of injuries to Irish players and an off-colour performance from France meant that this fixture was something of a damp squib last year. Ireland’s fortunes have changed drastically in the meantime, while France have gone from strength to strength, so Saturday is guaranteed to produce a more entertaining spectacle, weather permitting. With Ireland and England at home this year, France are favourites to win the competition outright, and although Eddie Jones’ side don’t fear them home or away, Ireland’s challenge this weekend is as much mental as it is physical.
The absence of Johnny Sexton cannot be understated, but if Ireland go into Saturday’s fixture with any sort of trepidation because he is missing, it is going to be a long evening for them. Since Andy Farrell has taken over as Ireland’s head coach, he has spoken about the need for them to work as a group and be connected in everything they do on the pitch, and Ireland must maintain that mindset.
With France having a 6/2 split on the bench and Joey Carbery having a history of injury issues, the hosts are certain to go after him (as well as Jack Carty when he enters the fray), but Ireland can’t afford to let him (or anyone) get isolated in the face of the French onslaught, as France have the power and athleticism to hurt any side. Injury setbacks are part of any campaign, so how Ireland fare on Saturday without their most important player will be a stern examination of their depth and their unity as a team.