'You’ve just got to get into him' - Dave Kearney on how to stop French juggernaut Virimi Vakatawa
Whoever comprises the Ireland back three for Saturday’s clash with France is likely to come in close and frequent contact with the marauding Virimi Vakatawa and, according to Dave Kearney, there may only be one clear cut way to impede the Fijian flier.
While the Guy Noves French experiment remains in its infancy, judgement will be reserved on whether appointing the former Toulouse coach at this stage of his career was a stroke of genius or a poorly timed decision taken in panic.
What is certain is that Noves has selected a squad, particular those who operate behind the scrum, that has the potential to embody the free-flowing style of play that will forever be synonymous with his great Toulouse sides.
In that vein, step forward Virimi Vakatawa. Anyone with an even passing interest in the sevens game will know that the 23-year-old is a one man highlight reel of awe-inspiring athleticism.
Noves picked him directly from the French sevens team, and his faith was immediately repaid as Vakatawa scored a wonderfully taken try against Italy in what was his full international debut.
During the World Cup quarter final loss to Argentina, Ireland’s tendency to defend too narrow was ruthlessly exposed.
The Irish coaching staff have claimed over the last two weeks that those shortcomings have been addressed and the veracity of such statements will surely be put to the test in Paris.
So, how do you stop a 92kg bulldozer with searing pace? “You’ve just got to try and not give as much space as you can,” Kearney said of Vakatawa .
“Watching the sevens clips, if you give him even the tiniest bit of space, he's got good footwork and a fend, he’s strong, a big guy, so you’ve just go to give him as little space as possible. You’ve just got to get into him, get up and as quick as you can.”
Of course, France have power throughout their back division and Ireland will have to be switched on from the get go if they are to neutralize their offensive assaults, notably when the contest becomes less structured.
“We know the threats those guys on the edges pose; Bonneval, Medard, Fickou. All those guys they love to run, so we’re going to try and keep them as quiet as possible.”
Events at the Aviva Stadium mean Kearney could now be jettisoned into a starting berth as Ireland seek to undo the French for the fourth time in as many meetings.
Simon Zebo sat out training on Tuesday with a sore knee, while Keith Earls, who Kearney replaced with nine minutes to play of Ireland’s draw with Wales last Sunday, is still completing the Head Injury Assessment protocols.
What’s more, big brother Rob will have to complete a full training session on Thursday if he is to be passed fit for the coming showdown. If Kearney is in line to return to the starting XV, he’s yet to be informed as such.
“I don’t much to be honest. Joe always keeps us on our toes early on in the week and mixes teams in training a lot so I don’t really know what the story is. I don’t really know what the fitness story is on any of the other guys either.
“You always have to be ready for that. I was hoping to get on (Wales game) for longer but, as the game goes on and it gets tighter, you’re not really going to get much time. The one thing that Joe always says to us is to fit in and not try and force things,” he said.