Thursday 22 March 2018

Schmidt must get Ireland to box clever in bid to floor French heavyweights

France rugby team player Rory Kockott (R) of South Africa trains during the Captain's run at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis near Paris
France rugby team player Rory Kockott (R) of South Africa trains during the Captain's run at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis near Paris
David Kelly

David Kelly

JOE Schmidt may have already had one eye on this week's visit of France to Dublin when he was asked on Saturday to assess the dogged contribution of his hastily assembled back-row in Rome.

"We wouldn't be the biggest team around," he conceded, addressing the nagging problem which has seen Ireland denied the services of their key ball-carriers this season.

"So we have got to make sure that everyone is working really hard."

And so Scotland coach Vern Cotter, with whom it is more than possible his old Clermont assistant Schmidt may have a brief word this week, hinted at a possible solution.

"It was a tough game, physically tough," Cotter admitted after his side's 15-8 defeat in Paris just hours later.

"We didn't weigh as much as them. But we made up for it by running round the paddock, being mobile, and that's something we have to believe in."

In actual fact, the visiting pack, at least, weighed more than their Gallic opponents.


Indeed, Scotland edged the first-half territory and possession stats and scored the game's only try but were held at bay by a power surge from the French bench.

All 23 stones of Uini Atonio and his colleague - a mere stripling at 21 stones, Romain Taofifenua - emerged from the bench as if recruited from the qualifying series for the World's Strongest Man.

"They certainly have some big guys," remarked Cotter. "We will be looking to see how we can perform better in contact. All the guys are so disappointed that we lost ball in contact."

Even if he doesn't give his old colleague a call this week, Schmidt will have already swallowed the key learnings from the analysis provided to him by Mervyn Murphy and Co.

It will be simply impossible for Ireland to go through France; hence they must be cleverer and seek to go around them.

Against Italy, the intensely narrow focus of attack was sufficient to that particular challenge; however, replicating this tactic against the French would be dangerous in the extreme.

Do not expect Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne to merely truck the ball up the middle or engage ball-carriers without the necessary go-forward; nor, however, will Ireland carelessly attack the wide channels in early phases.

Scotland's use of the ball was mostly unwise, whether uncontested kicks or injudicious engagement with contact, allowing Bernard le Roux to make hay at the breakdown alongside the imperious Thierry Dusautoir.

An analysis of France's victory can be interpreted in two ways: at once a triumph of physical brutality but an illustration of how being a beast can be a burden.

True, France managed to secure 21 turnovers, five of them providing the steady Clermont out-half Camille Lopez with the winning points from his boot

However, a side seemingly teeming with riches in the back three should surely have profited more from a surfeit of attacking ball.

Yet, despite beating 21 defenders, busting 21 tackles, and off-loading (19) that produced four clean breaks, the insipid French scarcely threatened the Scottish line.

Indeed, they almost succumbed to an intercept sucker punch in the game's death throes.

If it left the supporters frustrated - sports daily L'Equipe simply labelled the effort 'soporifique' - the gilded back-line were equally deflated.

"It was difficult and frustrating because we did not really hit good balls nor had many opportunities," affirmed full-back Scott Spedding. "Those we had, we did not take advantage of them.

"We could not play the game as we wanted to. We also made a lot of handling errors which killed the rhythm.

"The key is to win and we'll take the win. For the rest, it is very frustrating."

Spedding and scrum-half Rory Kockott appear to be the primary contenders to become familiar scapegoats for the performance by a coach whose inability to change remains France's greatest stumbling block to sustained success.

"We need to play one or two extra phases if we want to take something meaningful from all our periods of dominance," says the beleaguered Philippe Saint-Andre, whose tenure will almost certainly end this November unless, inconceivable as it may seem, Les Bleus win the World Cup.

"When we've got the ball we need to make it count on the scoreboard. It's just a question of patience and that will come, we are working on it. There are plenty of elements we need to improve on and we know exactly what they are."


However, his multiple references to a power game in the aftermath of Saturday's grim Test reflect a coach whose one-dimensional philosophy forces a strait-jacket on his players; while Schmidt is mindful of shielding his players from what they cannot do, Saint-Andre refuses to let his players express what they can do.

The difference between the sides this weekend will not necessarily be viewed through the prism of the players who take the field, rather the respective coaches who lead them there.

A side coached by Schmidt, with his reliance on clinical efficiency and astute tactical awareness, will not cede as much possession to the French as Cotter's side eventually did.

Given that France have, regrettably, long since buried the spirit of Jean-Pierre Rives, the terms of engagement in this fixture have changed; where once, the Irish tactic would be to slow the game down, now the premium is on keeping the ball alive as much as possible.

The most potent way to stymie a big beast is to attack their weakness.

"We'll try to cut our cloth to try and exploit any weakness we perceive and also to try to play to some of our strengths," confirmed Schmidt, prepared once again to tailor a game-plan suited to the contest, as much as the players who will contest it.

France may have the big 'uns but Ireland have the better little 'uns and so they will have to box clever.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport