Saturday 16 December 2017

It's structure against chaos

France's Virimi Vakatawa celebrates after scoring his team's first try during the RBS Six Nations match between France and Italy. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
France's Virimi Vakatawa celebrates after scoring his team's first try during the RBS Six Nations match between France and Italy. Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Before last year's World Cup final, All Black coach Steve Hansen was asked if there was one piece of advice that he took from his late father Des that he still applied to coaching. "You get all your options off the opposition," came the reply.

Hansen must love coaching against France, because Les Bleus present a coach with more opportunities and options than any other team. His team showed exactly how to punish the French en route to the Webb Ellis Cup and in response the national federation replaced Philippe Saint-Andre with veteran coach Guy Noves.

The former Toulouse supremo has only had one game to bed in his ideas, but it also means that Joe Schmidt has only had one game to see what changes he has made. Against Italy, France were fast and loose and generally unimpressive and Schmidt would have seen options a-plenty.

Defend to attack

France offloaded 22 times in their narrow win over the Azzurri and that opens them up to all sorts of risk from a team as aggressive as Ireland.

Against Wales, Schmidt's side were keen to exploit every error as Devin Toner showed when pouncing on Rhys Priestland's knock-on in the build-up to the try.

France have big men who can win collisions and offload, but Ireland will look to get a hand or a foot in to disrupt the transfer and then pile through to apply pressure as they look to scramble.

Noves sets his attacking shape wide, meaning they are vulnerable to turnover ball and Ireland's big hitters will be doing everything they can to disrupt.

Not only will they look to attack off offloads, they know that if the French passes start to stick then they'll be in trouble themselves. If they don't, then Ireland will be on the front foot.

Go through the phases

Schmidt's record against France is played three, won three and each time he has beaten them a different way.

It has always been a hugely physical effort, however, with last year's World Cup win a particularly gruelling affair.

Yet, there is a method in the countless phases that Ireland's players are asked to go through as France's defensive structure collapses as the play goes on.

Against Italy, Noves' men looked enthusiastic when they had the ball, but less so when they defending and the Italians found plenty of space with ball in hand.

At the World Cup, the majority of tries that France conceded originated between the 10-metre and 22-metre lines, an area where Ireland had success in their seven-linebreak performance against Wales, and if they can find holes they'll find the French far less willing to scramble than the Welsh were.

Given the toll the Top 14 takes on their bodies, it's probably no surprise that the French looked sluggish last week.

In Cardiff, Ireland held 69pc of possession and spent 72pc of the match in French territory, forcing their opponents into a whopping 197 tackles. Without some big names in their pack, such dominance may be difficult, but they have a target and will try to hit it.

Go back to basics

Ireland looked reluctant to kick against Wales, but given France's newly constructed back three there is definitely joy to be had in the back-field.

Johnny Sexton, if fit, can test out the Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa's positional sense, while Maxime Medard looked suspect at times when the ball was sent into the back-field.

Ireland's expected combination of Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney have huge experience playing together and triumphed in Paris two years ago, but the two players mentioned above and Hugo Bonneval are still getting to know one another.

Ireland's kick-chase was not at its best in Dublin last weekend and there's been little time to fix it on the training ground at Carton House, but if they can tighten up they can put huge pressure on France.

Go back to the maul

Ireland were once known as a mauling team, but since the World Cup they have gone away from their old strength.

Italy showed that this France pack can be gotten at off lineout ball and Ireland would be mad not to try and take advantage of their excellent lineout by trying to maul the less organised eight facing them.

Even if they can't get over the line, a maul moving forward will suck in French defenders and leave space for the backs outside them and given the reconstructed nature of Noves' backline and their defensive issues, Schmidt would back Sexton to be able to put his runners away.

Survive at the scrum

The single-biggest area of concern for Ireland this weekend is the scrum.

Rabah Slimani is one of the best tightheads in the world and helped destroy Munster in Paris last month, while the mobile Eddy Ben Arous and captain Guilhem Guirado are able accomplices.

Nathan White struggled badly with the illegal Rob Evans last weekend and needs further support from Devin Toner who swapped sides against Wales.

If Ireland can survive at the set-piece, they can win.

Irish Independent

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