Friday 6 December 2019

Friday night's bruise cruise highlights need for game to flow

France's fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc kicks the ball to convert his team's first try during their match against Wales. Photo: Getty
France's fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc kicks the ball to convert his team's first try during their match against Wales. Photo: Getty

Eddie Butler

The roof didn't work. The symbol of the search for a brighter rugby, the very piece of kit that guarantees a patch of dry in a decidedly wet part of the world, seized up. It was the Six Nations all over - good intentions stuck. It didn't matter that the sky overhead was clear on Friday night and that there was no real need for the mechanical aid in the first place; the Wales and France coaches wanted to guarantee conditions to match their ambitions . . . and something broke down.

For 50 years after becoming a force in the 1950s France churned out big, mean packs. French flair was the cry, the nation's dream, but the reality was that the pack came first. They were horrible creatures, but their instincts to cause pain were softened by their presence in the beautiful game when it opened up, the Spanghero brothers flowing in and out of the three-quarters.

The forwards of Wales no longer yield before the modern French packs. Gone are the days of massive inferiority at the scrummage, of being out-jostled at the lineout and scattered by the driving maul. Wales hold out, in the full knowledge that their own aerobic superiority is such that when the French wind has blown, there are rich pickings to be had.

On Friday, they came earlier than expected, in the third quarter. The half-time 6-3 became 19-3 and the game was over, allowing France to try to recapture the days of old with their driving lineouts.

For Wales, this was a chance to practise stopping what may well be coming their way at Twickenham next. They will be unhappy about their resistance against the maul from which the admirable Guilhem Guirado scored.

It wasn't all about the maul. France made more than 20 passes out of contact against Wales, a sign that they are looking to be less coy with the ball. Their problem remains at scrum-half, by tradition the player that runs the game. France do not have a governor there. Sebastien Bezy and Maxime Machenaud are neat and compact, but they do not direct the whole. It means that nobody, until the late arrival of Francois Trinh-Duc, gave meaning to all the good intentions.

For as long as he has been in and out of the French team, Trinh-Duc has been the butt of all sorts of criticism. There was always something - a slightly mysterious "something" - for Francois to work on.

Lately, the something has been a more straightforward matter of a leg injury, but his head has never been fully trusted by his coaches, in contrast to the high esteem in which he is held by the outside world.

He came off the bench on Friday and the game changed and not just because the maul began to move. Trinh-Duc gave the three-quarters direction and a pattern and a directness that had been missing. If France are to prosper, they have to shift the position of control from 9 to 10 and empower Trinh-Duc.

The problem, it seems, is that this responsibility sits uneasily in his mind - but it may be worth trying again. Anything has to be better than the conversion of Virimi Vakatawa from strike runner on the wing to supplementary forward, generally getting in the way at the breakdown.

Wales, too, have a little problem at scrum-half. Gareth Davies was lightning fast again on the break and deserved his man-of-the-match award. But he's trying to run too much - and kick. Dan Biggar should be controlling the game, but he was co-pilot on Friday night. Wales somehow have gone French, with the No 9 running the show.

Was this more "welfare of the player" stuff? Protecting the 10 seems to be all the rage? Biggar would be the first to say the last thing he wants is extra security. Any special attention paid to him by those that would do him ill is nothing but a compliment and he would invite them to do their damnedest.

Such a plea for less worry includes asking the referees to stop being so careful. For the good of the game, let the game flow. A 10 in a game of flowing movement is safer than anywhere. Oxygen starvation among the hunters is his ally.

Trying to push the Six Nations in the right direction isn't all about moving the roof or shifting control from one half-back to the other; it is about interpreting the willingness of everybody to play without interruption.


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