Sport Rugby

Sunday 25 February 2018

Saint-Andre plans to stick with conservative game-plan

French risk playing into Irish hands by retaining Kockott and Spedding

Scott Spedding
Scott Spedding
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

BY NOW, Joe Schmidt will have pored over every facet of Scotland's narrow defeat in Paris and already put elements of what he saw into practice on the Carton House training pitch.

With the Ireland coach, knowledge is power and he will have gleaned much from a performance that had the French media hitting the panic button even though their team won their opener.

Yesterday's team announcement would have been a satisfactory one for the New Zealander, as Philippe Saint-Andre resisted the temptation to bring Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin into his starting line-up, instead retaining the services of naturalised South Africans Rory Kockott and Scott Spedding.

The muscular Spedding is a predictable operator in comparison to the Racing Metro man, who was one of the most effective attackers in last year's Six Nations and provided something different in a backline built for contact.

Kockott has been retained at scrum-half despite Parra's relationship with No 10 Camille Lopez at Clermont Auvergne and is a player the Leinster contingent in the Ireland ranks will be familiar with.

Seen as a loose cannon during his early days at the Sharks, the Durban native has been a Top 14 star with Castres over the past number of seasons and his ascent to arguably the most iconic of French jerseys has appeared inevitable for some time.

Saint-Andre has made just one enforced change to his side, bringing Racing Metro's Eddy Ben Arous in for injured Toulon prop Alexandre Menini.

The coach is hoping for improvements from a victory built on discipline and Lopez's boot rather than old-school French flair.

Given that Ireland generally give away fewer penalties than their opponents, Les Bleus will have to create more on their visit to Dublin.

"Ireland are an extremely disciplined side. They usually give away only around eight penalties whereas the Scots give up 13 or 14," Saint-Andre said. "They are full of confidence.

"They have won eight in a row and are the favourites for the title. We have to compete with them in every area, duels in the air where they are very strong, tackle hard and not give an inch.

"It is important for us to win an away match against a major team, but to do that we have to be more effective than we were against Scotland."

France's game-plan against Scotland was largely based around the new way of winning the battle of the gain-line and offloading out of the tackle.

They were way out in front in the offload stakes after week one, attempting 19 when the nearest was Italy with 12. Ireland's low-risk approach has them bottom of the table with five.

Between them, Mathieu Bastareaud, Yoann Huget and Teddy Thomas offloaded for 12 so Ireland know what to expect. Stop the offload and you stop France.

They are playing with more structure this season, but Schmidt will have noted how they fade over the course of each half.

Scotland's try came about as a result of a poor kick-chase followed by a previously aggressive defensive line losing its impetus.

Thomas may be the new star of their backline, but there are suspicions about his ability to turn and the returning Johnny Sexton is likely to target his Racing Metro team-mate.

Unleash

Despite the enforced front-row change, France will hope to improve their scrum effort and unleash their giant replacement props Uini Atonio and Vincent Debaty around the 50-minute mark and dominate the set-piece, while their lineout functioned well.

If the magic has been seeping from the blue jersey for some time now, there is still gas in the back-three and loose kicks can be punished lethally, while Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana will do damage if Ireland slip off their tackles.

Schmidt will cast his mind back to Paris last March, when Bastareaud wreaked havoc in his side's defence but at the same time offered opportunity when making risky offloads.

At times, he was their best and worst player all at the same time. As Leinster discovered to their cost in Toulon last season, the centre operates as an auxiliary flanker and, once he fixes himself on the ball, he is impossible to shift.

Lopez is the big addition at fly-half and his assured presence is giving the French some hope, but Ireland's coach will see plenty of opportunity elsewhere.

France - S Spedding; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, W Fofana, T Thomas; C Lopez, R Kockott; E Ben Arous, G Guirado, R Slimani; P Pape, Y Maestri; T Dusautoir, B Le Roux, D Chouly. Reps: B Kayser, U Atonio, V Debaty, R Taofifenua, L Goujon, M Parra, R Tales, R Lamerat.

Irish Independent

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