Friday 9 December 2016

Tony Ward: What Ireland don’t know might hurt them

Rougerie the familiar name but new-boy Fofana carries greater threat to Ireland’s chances in Paris

Published 28/02/2012 | 05:00

Once Dave Pearson made his postponement decision in Paris the Six Nations landscape moved -- irrespective of the French win at Murrayfield, Ireland are heading for Stade de France in a far better place than they were first time round.

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It is still difficult to envisage an Ireland win and yet, as ever with this fixture, hope springs eternal. If you don't believe you can turn history and tradition on its head, then what's the point in travelling?

Certainly against Italy we were nowhere near as lacklustre and uncharacteristically stand-offish as we had been at times against the Welsh.

The Italians were what we knew them to be, despite all the diplomatic platitudes flowing freely in the build-up. In the end, we put an extremely limited Six Nations side away emphatically, outscoring them five tries to one.

In terms of confidence and momentum, the victory has some relevance but in terms of intensity, not a jot.

The French might not have set Edinburgh alight but they won while playing well within themselves and always looked extremely dangerous on the counter. It is the winning formula that has served French rugby so well for so long -- but on their home patch they turn up the tempo.

I wish we, like the Scots, could call on size in the centre to combat the threat of Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie down those midfield channels. Andy Robinson put together the limited combination of Graeme Morrison and Sean Lamont and they had some success in curbing the French duo.

It is easy to call for the likes of James Downey and Tommy Bowe to play in the Ireland midfield based on size alone but switching positions (in the case of Bowe) is fraught with danger, while Munster-bound Downey has not been in the frame at all under Declan Kidney.

If we could find the right player, I have no issue whatsoever with a 'horses for courses' selection.

Rougerie has been causing problems to defences at Test level for a long time, whether on the wing or in the centre, but Fofana was the one to set alarm bells ringing hellishly loud in Edinburgh. At 5'10" and 14st he is almost identical in physique to Keith Earls and Gordon D'Arcy, but his ability to take the ball at pace without checking stride and at varied angles is a real worry for Ireland.

Beyond that, France were typically efficient at scrum and line-out, if a tad lazy in defensive strategy and alignment. It is easy to fan out and fill a slot in a defensive screen across the field.

The Scots exposed a soft belly on occasion at the tackle through David Denton, Richie Gray and Ross Ford. I would expect French coach Philippe Saint-Andre to tighten things up significantly, but I'm sure that Cian Healy, Rory Best and the back-row trio will be aware of this French weakness.

Because Sean O'Brien wasn't at his free-running best on Saturday, questions are again being asked about balance in the Irish back-row. But it is worth noting that the Scots fielded two specialist opensides -- John Barclay and Ross Rennie -- on either side of dynamic newcomer Denton, while the French back-row consisted of two No 8s -- Imanol Harinordoquy and Louis Picamoles -- alongside skipper Thierry Dusautoir.

Here, I totally agree with Kidney's philosophy -- you should get your best players on the field irrespective of numbers on shirts. Stephen Ferris, O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip is the right combination for this game.

The only issues to be addressed in terms of the starting XV are at scrum-half and second-row, with Eoin Reddan and Donnacha Ryan making a significant impact off the bench against Italy. But Kidney is conservative by nature, tending to go with his original selections where possible, so I doubt there will be any change to the match-day 22.

The concern is that France can play much better than they did against Scotland -- they clearly have the potential to cut loose. However, you can expect a much more substantial showing from Ireland -- although I doubt it will be enough to win.

The decision to call up Anthony Foley as temporary replacement forwards coach for Gert Smal, who is getting treatment for an eye condition, is to be welcomed. And while Kidney might not have intended it as such, Foley's appointment is a big leg-up for his chances of getting the Munster top job, although I would still prefer if the former No 8 bided his time and served his coaching apprenticeship before taking charge.

One other issue to arise over the weekend was the role of the scrum-half at ruck time. The scrum is bad enough as a time-waster, but the ruck is worse -- God be with the days when rucking meant driving in and over the ball, freeing up possession as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Now it's akin to an elongated tooth extraction, with the No 9 (and there were three of them particularly irritating at weekend -- Conor Murray for Ireland, Lee Dickson for England and Mike Phillips for Wales) working the ball back with feet to the perfect passing position while at the same type marshalling the next pod of forwards for the two-yard pass and a repeat of the same mind-numbing drive and recycle all over again.

It is truly nauseating, and here I would encourage referees to exercise a little more license in application of the offside interpretation.

If the scrum-half is not reacting to the instruction from the match official to 'play it' then I would urge a little more freedom for opposition players to come through.

Call it bending rather than breaking the offside law, for as things stand the static ball at the back of a ruck is becoming every bit as annoying as the re-set scrum and all the sickeningly repetitive crouch-touch-pause-engage mumbo jumbo.

Irish Independent

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