Sunday 19 November 2017

Ireland must use legs and keep heads to stay alive

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IRELAND's players and management have been at pains to convince anyone listening that the romance lives, that France are just as beguiling as they ever were.

This St Valentine's evening, rugby's traditional Casanovas appear in the fair city in a mutated form. Big, mean and telling anyone who'll listen that they're willing to knock 50 shades of you know what out of any Irishman who stands in their way in a South African accent - this is not the France generations fell in love with, and they don't really care.

They are here for an arm wrestle rather than a cuddle and they will do what it takes to achieve their goals and hit the road. If Ireland want a night to remember, they'll have to move fast and hold their nerve.

Big, hulking beasts France may be, but they don't like it when things move too fast and in a game where size matters, Joe Schmidt will be hoping that speed ultimately kills.

These sides went through the motions last Saturday without ever giving much away. Both knew that bigger dates lay ahead.

Schmidt has been able to roll out all of his big guns for the first time in 12 Tests and he'll just be hoping they are not rusty. Philippe Saint-Andre retains 14 of his side from last week's win over Scotland in a rare show of continuity.

Readiness

Ireland's big concern is the match fitness of Sean O'Brien, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip, all Lions and world-class operators proven on the international stage but all with varying degrees of readiness.

While the IRFU felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying the comprehensive medical checks that Sexton went through before being cleared to play after his repeated concussions, there must now be a question over whether the fly-half has been able to focus during a week in which his head has become a national talking point and a target for the French.

Last weekend in Rome, it was all about getting the title defence off to a smooth start and now it's time to keep the show on the road.

With Pro12 fixtures over the next fortnight to get minutes into underused legs before the run-in, this Championship promises to be one in which Ireland get stronger as it goes and getting out of the first two weeks unscathed sets things up nicely ahead of the visit of an England side and its public falling in love with themselves all over again in two weeks' time.

The bookies believe in Joe Schmidt as they offer a six-point head start and an expectant public do too. Rarely, if ever, have the green masses marched down Lansdowne Road to face France with so little fear in their hearts.

It's all a little bit disconcerting, but the fact is Ireland are unbeaten at home since November 2013 and France have only beaten Scotland and Argentina away from home since 2011. Under their driven coach, Ireland find different ways to beat teams every week but some things remain constant.

Discipline is one of the major factors. Under Schmidt, Ireland concede an average of seven penalties a game; their opponents are giving away 11 per match.

Andrew Trimble's yellow card against Argentina is the only time Ireland have been down to 14 men over the course of 14 Tests, while seven yellows and one red have been issued to Ireland's opponents during the same period.

"A big part of it is in training it is treated the same as matches in terms of our discipline," Paul O'Connell explained.

"You don't get away with any silly infringements in training and that is something we emphasise, Joe and the coaching staff emphasise, whether it's lineouts, whether it's gap in lineouts or whether it's the scrum, the back foot at the ruck.

"Those habits permeate through onto the pitch. Every team prepares for the referee. You try and give him the best possible pictures that you can and that is how we do it.

"Penalties in rugby are so destructive, they take away your momentum, they give massive momentum to the other team. It's either three points on the board or it's 50 metres down the field so we're well aware of how important that part of the game is."

Full-back Rob Kearney elaborated on the training methods that have encouraged standards.

"Discipline doesn't happen by chance and we work damn hard on it. If you're caught offside (in training) or commit a penalty you get a yellow card and you're put off the field," the Louth man said.

"You play with 14 men and if you're getting a stare from your team-mates in training then you probably won't do it Saturday. You've got to train as you play.

"We're trying to become as much of an error-free team as we can. If you combine that with really good discipline and you're not giving the opposition kicks at goal you'll be a tough team to break."

Schmidt barely got past page one of his play-book in Rome, but he'll surely dust off a few of his trademark moves to try and unlock a French defence that tired visibly against the Scots.

Boisterous

The visitors know something is coming, they're just not sure what.

"He's clever and he works well, he's a tough coach," assistant Yannick Bru said. "The guys know that they will be surprised. We are arriving at a place where he will want to attack us."

Ireland, meanwhile, know that their favouritism will mean little if they don't front up in front of a packed home crowd which should be boisterous come 5pm.

O'Connell lavished praise on the French maul in particular after yesterday's Captain's Run, while he and scrum coach Greg Feek are expecting a real test of the tight five's mettle at scrum and lineout.

The defensive line are in for an unpredictable afternoon given the abilities of centres Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana and the guile of Teddy Thomas and Yoann Huget outside them. However, the indiscriminate offloading will create both danger and opportunity for the home side.

"It's a little bit of both," Schmidt conceded, even if he's wary of the game breaking up. "With the size and strength they have, their power to control themselves in collisions allows them to offload and keep control, and they do offload.

"They've got some very, very dangerous guys doing that. They'll push the odd one. They force defences to watch a whole lot of players off the ball as well as the ball carrier because they're running lines and you've just got to be careful as to who is running close to the ball carrier, because they are very quick to make those offloads."

If Ireland can ensure they meet France at the gainline and stop the offloads, then they will be halfway there. Playing at pace and holding their discipline, while meeting the forward effort head on will also establish their dominance. Close to full strength and with the smarter coach, it's Ireland's to lose

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