After beating Wales last weekend, this Saturday’s clash with France has become a tournament-defining game for Ireland. Improvements under Kieran Crowley notwithstanding, Ireland are still favourites to beat the Azzurri in Round 3, and while Scotland will be dangerous in Murrayfield and England will make progress under a new coaching ticket, coming up against a fully-developed French outfit that have had the upper hand on them over the last couple of years is the biggest test Ireland will have until the World Cup.
France’s attacking shape hasn’t changed all that much since this time last year, so Ireland will know what they need to do to stop it, but what is of arguably greater importance is being able to put this deservedly vaunted French team under pressure. A high error count in the first half 12 months ago meant that Ireland couldn’t turn the screw on France until after the break (sensational Mack Hansen try aside), but every side has weaknesses, and France are no exception.
Routes To Success
What sets France apart as a world-class side and favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup later this year is their ability to win games in a variety of ways. They have a formidable pack, dominant set-pieces, an incisive backline with buckets of skill and pace and individual superstars at 9 and 10 who can score tries out of nothing. Their main strengths, though, in this World Cup cycle have been their territorial kicking and oppressive defence, but these traits can be turned against them.
Out of all of the other Six Nations teams, Wales have come the closest to beating France over the course of the last year, and one of the main reasons they managed to do so was by using Les Bleus’ desire to win kicking duels as a weapon to hurt them. In the last few years, France have kicked heavily to pressurise sides into conceding territory and making mistakes, and Wales countered this by refusing to kick the ball out of play, instead kicking long but well infield, sometimes straight to the French backfield defenders:
This initially looked like it was playing into France’s hands, but using this tactic greatly increased the ball-in-play time, preventing the French forwards from catching their breath when preparing for scrums and lineouts and forcing them to keep moving up and down the pitch. The knock-on effect was noticeable fatigue from the French pack:
Likewise, France’s the level of defensive pressure that France exert takes a toll on their big forwards, and we saw this when they faced Ireland last year.
They did an excellent job of disrupting Ireland’s breakdown and rhythm with their counter-rucking and defensive line speed in the first half of that fixture, but heavyset players only have so many ruck hits and tackles in them before they start to lag (not to mention the effort required to get back into position and race off the mark), and the effects of expending so much energy in the first 40 minutes really started to show in the second half:
Australia and Japan attacked the space vacated in the French defence due to slow reorganisation from the French pack with constant changes of direction back in November, and got a decent return from doing so:
This delay from the French forwards in pushing across to fill or extend the defensive line combined with the aggressive nature of the blitz from the edge defender in France’s system can cause the edge of France’s defence to narrow in too much on decoy runners at times. Ireland created (but didn’t capitalise on) space in the 15-metre channel because of this a year ago, and it was a trend in France’s game that continued into the November Internationals:
Garry Ringrose’s superb form this season is a massive boost for Ireland in this department as he offers Ireland an important second distributor option in wider channels, and it’s a role that Mack Hansen and Hugo Keenan can carry out, too. The challenge for Ireland is to maintain their attacking shape under intense defensive pressure and make good split-second decisions. Doing so is easier said than done, but if Ireland can, then they should be able to find and exploit space when presented with the above scenarios.
Putting France through the phases should yield results for Ireland, but only in the right parts of the field. Ireland spent much of the game in Paris last year stringing long sequences of attack together in their own half, and they paid a heavy price for it due to extreme pressure from Shaun Edwards’ defence. As mentioned earlier, France make it their business to dominate territory through their use of the boot, but there is one weak link in their team when it comes to kicking out of hand.
Damian Penaud has rightly established himself as one of the most exciting attacking talents in world rugby, and his capacity for solo tries is unmatched, but the Bordeaux-bound flyer spent his formative years playing in midfield for Clermont, and not having a grounding in the fundamentals of back three play can be evident in his performances.
He has a habit of holding off too long on retreating when the opposition look to put cross-field kicks into the space behind him, and South Africa regularly targeted this flaw in his game back in November:
Penaud’s technique under the high ball leaves a lot to be desired, too. The timing of his runs and body positioning in the air are frequently off, and he never appears overly confident or comfortable when dealing with contestable kicks:
Provided Ireland can get a foothold in the French half, they will need to use starter plays to begin their multi-phase attacks. Midfield crashes are a big part of Ireland’s game, but those types of plays feed right into the aggressive French midfield defence and attempting to bash it up through Stuart McCloskey will likely lead to negative yards off first-phase.
One area that Ireland should definitely look at in this regard is the tail of the French lineout. For a team that are so aggressive without the ball, their line speed is strangely passive in this zone, and that’s even if they don’t leave a big gap unguarded which is often the case with them in these situations:
That’s the other downside to having bulky forwards in your team; they can be slow to get away from set-pieces, and if Ireland can use maul feints to tie the French pack up before moving the ball away quickly like the Springboks do in the above example, then they should get over the gain line.
Mental As Much As Physical
When Ireland came up short in the Stade de France last year, a narrative developed in the media afterwards that Ireland couldn’t beat ‘big’ teams, and Leinster’s defeats to La Rochelle and the Bulls at the end of that season were viewed as further evidence to support this theory. Ireland’s victory over South Africa last November has gone a long way towards dispelling that myth, but the fact that they haven’t beaten France since before the last World Cup is still being used as a stick to beat them with.
I don’t think Ireland were as far away from a win over Les Bleus in 2022 as everyone seems to think; they had two clean line breaks in the second half that they didn’t convert, plus a lineout in the red zone from a Tadhg Beirne 50/22 kick that was stolen, so they left at least nine points out on the pitch, and that’s before you get to the much-debated penalty decision in the final ten minutes.
The previous fixture between the two sides was a one-score game as well, and although Johnny Sexton’s presence probably would have been the difference between winning and losing both matches, Ireland must have the self-belief that they can overcome Fabien Galthié’s team. They have the talent to do so despite their injury list, and the win over the Springboks back in November should provide reaffirmation that their attack-minded style of play can work against huge packs and suffocating defences, but time will tell if they can defeat an opponent that has developed a psychological edge over them in recent times.
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