Thursday 22 February 2018

Breaking down how Ireland can defeat France - Four key areas Joe Schmidt can focus on

Ireland coach has picked a team built for speed and wants to tire big men in Les Bleus' pack

Joe Schmidt speaks with Conor Murray who will be a key player for Ireland’s chances against France. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt speaks with Conor Murray who will be a key player for Ireland’s chances against France. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Unlike in previous seasons, the French are coming to Dublin rested and content. They are confident that things are on the up after a decent start to the Six Nations that saw them go close against England and beat Scotland.

Yet Ireland are expected to defeat Guy Noves' side when they meet tomorrow. In recent years, the fixture has largely gone the way of this weekend's hosts who are well-bedded into Joe Schmidt's way of playing and can call on an experienced panel of players who regularly beat French sides.

Nobody is predicting an easy evening for the men in green, but they will be confident that if they can stick to their structures and exploit the apparent weaknesses in the France side, they can win.

Schmidt has had plenty of time to review the footage of their opening games and will have picked out the areas he wants to go after.

But Ireland must also get the most out of their own strengths if they are to go into the Six Nations endgame in contention.

Sort the line-speed

After Ireland's defeat to Scotland there were conflicting reports about where the defensive malfunctions came from, but after an easy ride against Italy, it is clear that the rearguard will be tested again tomorrow.

In particular, there are concerns about Ireland's ability to defend the wide channels where France will not only deploy their speed merchants, but also their big men.

The French set up with two pods of three forwards in midfield designed to get them over the gain-line, while they have the option to go wide out the back where Ireland have struggled in the past and most recently at Murrayfield.

They could be in trouble if Louis Picamoles can get time and space to wreak havoc in the wide channels, while Noa Nakataici and Yoann Huget are both capable of doing huge damage if given the opportunity.

Shane Horgan has expressed concern that Ireland are still over-staffing the short side, but we will find out if they have learned their lessons tomorrow.

Keep the ball

The 2015 World Cup win over France is arguably the most complete performance Ireland have put in on Schmidt's watch and it was based on ball-retention and ruck-speed.

If you force Les Bleus to make tackle after tackle while playing with accuracy and generating quick ball, the reward will come.

Take Scotland's first try against France two weeks ago. Over the course of 15 phases, they rarely troubled the home side in Paris but gradually the defensive shape slipped, the tacklers were slower in getting off the ground and eventually Stuart Hogg was presented with a two-on-one.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

It was basic stuff and it rewarded the Scottish patience.

France have huge men in their pack, but while they make big impacts their endurance is in question.

Ireland, at their best, are up there amongst the most precise breakdown teams in the game. If they can provide Conor Murray with the right type of ball and show the right level of accuracy in possession then the scores will come.

So far this season, Schmidt's men have been the second most effective rucking team in the tournament behind Scotland with an effectiveness rate of 81.1pc and an average speed of 1.19 seconds per ruck according to Accenture. France, however, have been the worst team at the breakdown with an effectiveness rate of 78pc and an average speed of 1.36 seconds.

Dominating the play against Italy is one challenge, but keeping hold of the pill against France is another.

By picking a dynamic back-row of CJ Stander, Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip Schmidt hopes to keep the French on their feet defending for long periods to allow space to open up for Johnny Sexton to find Simon Zebo and Keith Earls in space.

Last season, Ireland dominated possession in the first half but weren't as accurate as they normally are and then lost control of the game after half-time.

Exploit the offload

Part of Ireland's defensive strategy will involve trying to make hay when the French take risks.

No one in the Six Nations makes more offloads than France, nor do they try the exchange of possession when they're on the back foot or in their own half as often.

It's risky business and Andy Farrell will have the tacklers and supportive players ready to swarm through when the offload is on.

If France are winning collisions and offloading successfully, they're dangerous.

Their try against England came when they went up the middle and freed their hands, but there is as much chance of an opposition score coming from those moments when they think it's on and it's not.

While their time together in Nice will stand to them in terms of freshness and cohesion, they still rely on the offload to get in behind defences. Ireland must turn that strength into a weakness.

Former Munster No 8 James Coughlan is familiar with the French style from playing for Pau and he believes Ireland's mission is to stop the offload.

"Stop the ball," he said. "The French are happy if you go low because they are attacking the same line. Right behind him, if Louis Picamoles picks a defender's left shoulder, they (the trail runner) will go to the right. So you need guys wrapping the ball and the second guy cutting his legs; you might lose a metre or two but if the second guys stops the ball the ruck is formed."

Kicking accuracy

With the need for set-piece accuracy a given, Ireland will hope that their superior half-backs will provide the point of difference.

Baptiste Serin is an exciting talent and Camille Lopez is enjoying a fine season, but they lack the experience and control offered by Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton who will undoubtedly test Clermont winger Nakataici in the air at every opportunity.

The addition of Huget has limited the apparent aerial weakness, the Toulouse winger is a strong fielder of the ball; but expect the Fijian to be turned and tested frequently, particularly if the weather is poor.

His positional sense is questionable and Ireland will hope for big rewards.

Irish Independent

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