Lievremont's selections could be the basis for a stand-up routine
Published 12/02/2011 | 05:00
When Seve Ballesteros was the most compelling golfer on the planet, he was often accused of "juvenile" decision-making. Seve never saw a shot he felt he couldn't make and, thereby, never came upon a hazard that truly spooked him. His greatness was an off-the-cuff thing. He routinely put himself in bad places because, as one writer put it, he would drive a ball "as if cutting the head from a daisy".
Of course, more often than not, he'd then concoct something magical from an impossible lie and the galleries would exult at yet another unexplained miracle.
Seve's innate talent allowed him play to private rules almost. Sometimes, a more restrained and calculating opponent like, say, Tom Weiskopf outscored him with superior golf savvy. But, when Seve was in the zone, he became a virtual force of nature.
And there is something of Ballesteros in French rugby.
Year on year, they marry the most breath-taking of performances to displays of sometimes staggering ineptitude. Take the World Cup. France have pulled off some of the tournament's most epic victories -- semi-final v Australia 1987, semi-final v New Zealand 1999, and quarter-final v New Zealand 2007.
Yet, in each case, they've been quite underwhelming next time out, such as four years ago when they tripped up against a moderate England team in the semi-final. Victory would have given them a home World Cup final, yet they blew it against less talented, but pragmatic opponents.
One would have thought, given the breadth of talent at their disposal, that the professional era would have facilitated more consistency from France. It hasn't.
If anything, under coach Marc Lievremont, their moods have become even more ungovernable. Recent performances, especially, have fluctuated more than the euro has on currency markets.
Remember, this is a team that, after an unspectacular 2009 Six Nations, defeated New Zealand on their subsequent summer tour, a rare achievement for any visiting team. This is a team that, after winning last year's Grand Slam, then got hammered in Argentina.
Maybe, above all, this is a team that then produced what ranks, undoubtedly, as France's most inept display of the modern era, losing to Australia last November in Paris by a staggering score of 59-16.
So, when I encounter headlines like, "France send out a warning shot", as I did after their victory over Scotland last weekend, I'm inclined to ask for the salt.
Frankly, since Lievremont took over as head coach, his selection policies could be the basis for a good stand-up routine. With phenomenally talented players at his disposal, he has acted like a spoilt child in a sweet shop. It is as if he is incapable of making up his mind about what type of French team he wants to take the field.
This has, unquestionably, been at the root of the Jekyll and Hyde tendencies Les Bleus have shown in recent times. True, some coaches can be too loyal. But, if players feel insecure about selection, it does nothing for confidence.
Now, maybe, that penny is finally beginning to drop. For the only change Lievremont makes this week is an enforced one, Clement Poitrenaud drafted in for the injured Maxime Mermoz. Lievremont has even gone on record this week to sing the virtues of "stability", yet his players won't doubt the fragility of that song if they deliver a sub-standard performance tomorrow.
For all that, France will arrive in Dublin with significant confidence.
But French confidence isn't always what it seems. Just ask the Wallabies, who scored 46 unanswered points in 35 minutes at Stade de France three months ago.
Of the four tries that France scored last weekend, two were directly from turnovers. Yes, France executed both magnificently, but Scotland handed them the opportunities.
The French were also awarded a penalty try at the scrum, definitely a concern for Ireland.
But for all the bells-and-whistles running rugby of France last Saturday, that creativity produced just a solitary try.
They also racked up 17 errors compared to Ireland's 14 in Rome, a statistic for which the Irish team was panned.
France's defence is suspect, too. They have had the same defence coach, Dave Ellis, for almost a decade now. He runs a solid system, but their defensive line is slow, giving opponents time on the ball and space to play.
An even bigger issue is their tackling. It's woeful. They missed 25 tackles against Scotland, 22pc. That's worse than one in every five missed! Scottish No 8 Kelly Brown walked into the in-goal about as easily as the Germans marched into Paris in May 1940. It was staggering. A missed tackle count of 25 in a Test game is usually catastrophic, but, of course, victory obscures many little crises.
Scotland scored three tries and caused problems by running hard and direct at the French defensive line and Declan Kidney, no doubt, will focus on doing likewise. Two years ago, when Ireland last beat France, that was the strategy. It should be again.
Unfortunately, there are a number of concerns for Kidney. The scrum is in trouble for a myriad of reasons. France know this and will plan accordingly.
It might be time to revert to the old-fashioned tactic of taking quick channel-one ball and getting away from the scrum as quickly as possible. This hampers the quality of possession, as the offside lines immediately change, but it can be converted into quick front-foot ball for the backs with a little bit of ingenuity.
On the French put-in, we need to wheel and disrupt their possession as much as possible because, if they get good front-foot ball from a square scrum, the gain-line will be almost impossible to contain. The adjudication of the referee will be vital.
Jamie Heaslip's return will boost Ireland's line-out options considerably, as the presence of three out-and-out ball carriers in the back-row against Italy left us struggling out of touch. We put no pressure on the Azzurri line-out, and it showed.
Ireland cannot afford the extravagance of 14 handling errors either against a backline as talented as the French. Repeat that figure tomorrow and it won't matter how many tackles the French miss.
An Irish win is eminently possible, but requires three things: a solid set-piece game, hard, direct running and a minimum of unforced errors.
As for France, who knows which one will turn up? Seve once said of himself, "With me, it is eagle or a seven. Sometimes it comes to be a seven, but I take the risk."
Let's hope Lievremont tomorrow is in dire need of a ball-retriever.