Monday 26 February 2018

George Hook: Ireland can restore romance and run 'blue monster' ragged

Sean O'Brien
Sean O'Brien
George Hook

George Hook

The smooth sophisticats of international rugby are in town this afternoon, on this, the ultimate day of romance and love.

France, long-time casanovas of world rugby, once prided themselves on suave, slick backs and tough, uncompromising forwards. It was a perfect match.

But one wonders what St Valentine would make of the current crop of brutes.

Where once Les Bleus seeped sex appeal and unpredictability from their pores, with Philippe Sella, Serge Blanco and Thomas Castaignéde caressing the oval ball like the hips of a dancer in the Moulin Rouge, now a bulky monster stands in their place, incapable of making it past first base.

This French team is a shadow of its former glory and a limp imitation of times past. Nothing about the current squad offers excitement or danger. It is a group built on size and power, with damage and destruction as its modus operandi.

In modern day French rugby, flair and technique have been relegated to irrelevance. Size is now all that matters.

Personally I have struggled to accept this dramatic shift in French rugby culture. I still yearn for the days when France had the ability to run a ball from their own goal line and catch the opposition unaware.

Who remembers Blanco's magnificent try in the 1987 World Cup semi-final against Australia?

A move that started deep inside the French half, that combined soft hands, quick feet, a willingness to run and an unshakable confidence in their own skill. It was wonderful to watch.

Now, when I look at France, I no longer see the craft and guile of a rugby-mad nation. Instead, I am confronted by a bunch of blue monsters, whose sum total of skill is represented by their ability to run through opposition. Yet, even in this unpalatable approach, France are unconvincing.

The victory against Scotland in Paris last weekend was built on a platform of individuality. If the current head coach could even begin to get his players playing as a unit, France would be almost unstoppable. But such has been the inept approach of Philippe Saint-André over the years that France don't seem to know which way is up.

Here Ireland hold a massive advantage. If Saint-André is a Valentines fumble in the dark after a bucket of Beamish, Joe Schmidt is a surprise candlelit dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant.

Ireland's commander-in-chief has the necessary touch to disarm the visitors this afternoon and it is in his capable hands that we place our trust.

The game-plan is simple. Ireland must run France into the ground. This match will be won on the tread-mill, where Ireland's superior fitness will unlock a tired defence. It might take 60 or 70 minutes, but with the best fly-half in world rugby at the helm, Ireland can win.

A repeat of last weekend's performance in Rome will not be good enough. Ireland beat Italy in spite of themselves and but for the poor standard of opposition at the Stadio Olimpico, Schmidt might well be searching for his first Championship win today.

Sexton's return will give the outside backs more time and space on the ball but the key to victory will come in the back-row. If Schmidt employs a furious tempo to Ireland's game, it is vital that Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Peter O'Mahony get the better of their opposite numbers.

A return to the chop tackle will stifle the French attack. Three of the top five off-loaders in round one were French, with rampaging destroyer Mathieu Bastareaud leading the way with four.

Any tackle over knee height on the centre colossus is a waste of time. Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne must strike at the ankles and render his bashing runs ineffective.

That goes for the rest of the French backs too. Teddy Thomas, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget and Scott Spedding are all huge men, so fighting them in the trenches, face to face, will only lead to French gains.

The choke tackle that so disarmed Australia in 2011 has no place in the Irish defence this afternoon. France must fall and fall often.

Ironically, the player that gave Ireland the most problems last year has been cast aside by the France coach. Brice Dulin's quick feet left Ireland twisting and turning at the Stade de France last year; Joe Schmidt's relief at his exclusion for the strong but predictable Spedding was notable at the team press conference on Thursday.

If Ireland take on France in a physical war they will lose. But if Schmidt has his team running at angles and spreading the ball at every opportunity, the heavier, bigger opponents will eventually tire.

This Valentine's Day showdown will make or break Ireland's championship hopes. A frisky affair awaits a capacity Aviva crowd. Today, of all days, there will be no love lost.


blue monsters have taken the romance out of ruby

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