Tuesday 25 September 2018

Neil Francis: Disorganised shambles France are still capable of producing

French flanker Wenceslas Lauret holds off Robbie Henshaw during Ireland’s last trip to Paris, which ended in defeat. Photo: Franck Fife
French flanker Wenceslas Lauret holds off Robbie Henshaw during Ireland’s last trip to Paris, which ended in defeat. Photo: Franck Fife
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The period from September 1, 1939 to May 10, 1940 was known as the Phoney War. From the time the Germans invaded Poland to the time they engaged their real enemy, the English and the French, well it was a time of inertia and anxiety.

Both sets of adversaries glared at each other from the relative safety of the Siegfried line and the Maginot line.

War, as we know, is hell, but there was almost a sigh of relief when the engagement started - for some it was preferable to get stuck in rather than linger in a stew of anxiety or false hope.

When conflict did arrive many on the Allied side may have thought another year or two of the Phoney War might not have gone amiss after the slaughter and then capitulation in May and June.

The weekend of January 27 and 28 just gone was miserable - the Phoney War, the waiting, there was nothing to watch, there was nothing to do. I couldn't read another preview - nothing but poor-man's sport - FA Cup, Anglo Welsh League, no real rugby, no NFL - they should have a leap weekend for the last weekend in January. This is why rugby is a winter sport and why the Six Nations should never be moved to March/April (which is what World Rugby is trying to do in 2019).

France versus Ireland on Saturday and the Super Bowl on Sunday. Everyone is saying Ireland won't be beaten. Everyone is saying that the New England Patriots won't be beaten. The bookies are never wrong, right?

Maybe we should let the Phoney War continue just a little bit longer - the intoxicating unpredictability of the advent of the new championship but then the rancour of feeling that you blindly followed the conventional view.

Maybe France, cheese-eating surrender monkeys that they have been for the last few years, might actually do something. We pull the comfort blanket closer to ourselves and make some reassuring noises - if Ireland play well they will prevail - everyone is saying it. Is it an upset or a surprise if France beat Ireland in Paris? Listen to what we are actually saying?

Ask anyone who has played in Paris - you need an awful lot to go right to come out on top.

Ireland travel knowing that in the top four 'musts' to win on French soil, they are primed and armed to the teeth in those areas: 1 A powerful scrum; 2 A set of peerless and experienced halves; 3 A malleable and obdurate defence; 4 A proven kicker.

Our coach - a slave to his ideals and wary of another early blow-out in the campaign - reinforces his prescriptive game-plan and his micro preparation. All eventualities catered for and a super sharp opening 20 minutes - just give us the cup now.

Jacques Brunel, Schmidt's opposite number, is an unknown quantity at this level. I always wondered when he was in charge of Italy how would this guy do with a decent international side.

He did turn Perpignan into a team that played a fabulous version of the game. When Brunel finished with Italy he went to coach the forwards at Begles-Bordeaux in 2016. He took over the reins the following season but only won 10 of his 26 games and was hogging the line of least resistance in a 7/13 record this season before the surprise call-up in December.

Conventional wisdom tells us that he just won't have enough time to get his philosophy, if he still has one, across to his troops. Brunel might not mesh with his recently-retired players and now assistant coaches of Julien Bonnaire, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Sebastien Bruno. Elissalde was a brilliant and successful player for Toulouse but he had a disastrous coaching experience there. Was he picked because he was available?

The starting XV which will be announced today may have had three/four sessions as a team together - how could they possibly trouble Ireland? They barely know each other's names. The bulk of the side are under 25 and have no international experience - good international experience.

We are told that over the last 10 years French coaches had picked 103,692 different combinations of half-backs. Guy Noves did at least recognise the value of regularity - Murray/Sexton or Youngs/Farrell. They are the most important positions on the pitch - if you barely know each other let alone know each other's on-field habits or idiosyncrasies, how the hell do you expect them to control a game for you?

If you ask someone in the Democratic Republic of Congo who Ireland's halves are they will tell you Murray and Sexton. France? That is what Brunel needs: selection on a consistent basis of the best half-backs before this French side can make forward progress.

Noves tried to go with Jules Plisson and Sebastien Bezy whom he started the previous season's campaign and ended up with Maxime Machenaud and Francois Trinh Duc - a retrograde step. He realised that and stuck with Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez for the entire following season.

Lopez looks like an Amish share-cropper and unfortunately plays like one too and while he is dependable-ish, he is a long way short of the sort of catalyst that France need.

When you consider that six of the half-backs playing in the top six French Champions Cup sides are foreign, that gives you an idea of the problems facing the national side.

Anthony Belleau has burst out from the small pack and he could come to France's rescue. Brunel may pick Matthieu Jalibert out of his old club, Begles-Bordeaux. This would be great news for Ireland if he did but prudence may win out.

Belleau has real talent and could light up the Stade de France. He has bewildering pace and a fairly brusque hand-off and takes a huge amount on himself.

Every stand-off since Freddie Michalak shovels the ball out across the line.

It would be interesting to see if he gets the space to venture out and also what sort of damage he can do if the French point of attack is from the number 10 corridor.

If Belleau is picked, France have a chance. He has been mentored and coached by Jonny Wilko and he is mature beyond his years. He can do everything well.

Does it compensate for a midfield that is not particularly dangerous or a back-row that lacks cohesion and familiarity? Or a front five that isn't going to get close to pressuring us at scrum time or from mauled lineouts?

Conventional wisdom tells you that one player on his own won't have the influence to unpick a well-prepared and disciplined side. Ireland's defensive press and their ability to not concede penalties tell us that the team in green are going to win and win easily.

There is just something inside me that says no matter how bad France are nothing is easy over there and a bit like the contentious World Cup hosting bid, the French despite themselves have a great habit of putting one over on us.

Joe Schmidt knows that a win sets us up for the Championship but he also knows a disorganised shambles that has been written off by everyone could pull a freak 80 minutes out of the bag. Schmidt can't cover all the angles.

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