Tuesday 21 January 2020

Neil Francis: Predictable Ireland must take risks to have chance

Employing the same rugby by numbers tactics will play right into French hands, writes Neil Francis

Rob Kearney had four or five counter-attacking sorties against Italy, but they all died when he went to ground
Rob Kearney had four or five counter-attacking sorties against Italy, but they all died when he went to ground

Progress? To progress you always have to be in motion. If you stop to take stock or look in the mirror or take a second out to ask someone what they think, then you are gone. The question is, is this Irish team making progress, or is it even a work in progress?



I have used the term 'evolve or die' before and I just can't see any form of purposeful development in the Irish side at the moment. Paris, as it always does, will confirm our doubts.

Whatever about the merits of the personnel in the side, and you can't quibble too much with any of the selections, I just have not observed anything resembling a progressive outlook in their attitude. I never get a sense that the team is sure of itself.

One of the symptoms that exudes fragility or a lack of ambition is the absence of freedom of expression. Wales and France do have the confidence to express themselves and this quality is married with ambition. If you go to Paris without ambition -- even if you have bucket loads of courage -- it matters little. The outcome is assured.

If Ireland want to win this game they will have to gamble in defence, take risks about where their point of attack comes from and produce a performance which will flummox the French. Right now the French videotape analyst has this one in the bag. Ireland are predictable and easy to read and if we go out and engage the French with the same colour by numbers playbook that we have used in the last two years we are in trouble. By the way, did we not accuse Eddie O'Sullivan of playing formulaic colour by numbers rugby?

There are conflicting imperatives in this team that show up glaringly from time to time. The Italian game has already probably been wiped from most of your memory banks but a moment in the first half, at the 33rd minute, said much about how unsure Ireland are of themselves. The ball was turned over by Italy on Ireland's 22. Cian Healy fed Rob Kearney, who burst two tackles and set off on an arcing counter-attack towards the touchline. This run had possibilities and Jonathan Sexton caught his stride and the two of them looked like they would combust.

Kearney's line took him closer to the touchline, but you expected that they would read each other as a switch was the most logical way to progress. Worryingly, there seemed to be no connectivity between the pair. Kearney offered the ball inside but Sexton never read it. The ball was dropped and Alberto Sgarbi picked and would have scored if not for a remarkable stop, turn, chase and tackle from Sexton.

The whole episode gave you an insight into the lack of understanding behind Ireland's pack. Sexton and Kearney play together every week for Leinster. Understandable if it was a player from a different province. A simple mistake and a mis-read on a telegraphed switch but it gives you the lie that the back line as a whole have no notion of how to play off each other. There is no connectivity and there is no sense that support players can read, support or anticipate what their fellow ball carrier is going to do.

If those two Leinster players pretended that they had blue shirts on, the attack might have blossomed. Kearney had four or five counter-attacking sorties but they all died when he went to ground. If Isa Nacewa had been on the park he would have ensured continuity.

Everyone, including our two wingers, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble -- both of whom are industrious and intelligent readers of the game and know how to sculpt a support line -- seems to gear themselves to go in to ruck the ball carrier rather than let the move enter continuity. We seem to be unable to express ourselves holistically as a back line in loose situations. Seven reasonably talented individuals unable to forge some continuous play between themselves when space, time and opportunity dictate.

Ireland have been a set-piece back line for 10 years now but I know from watching and playing in Paris that they won't open the French up off scrums or lineouts. There was an average of 10 scrums in the three matches played last weekend. If Ireland are depending on three or four of those to be in midfield 25 to 30 metres from the French try line they can dream on.

Either way, Ireland's little triangular pods, where one runner goes in front of the ball carrier and the ball traces behind him, isn't really working and they are spending a lot of time running cross-field.

It is why our wingers are not making profitable or direct interventions when they come off their wing into the line. All they eventually end up doing is joining the cross-field drift -- easy pickings for a yawning defence.

We are also suffering from the dreamer's disease when it comes to assessing our back row. Sean O'Brien in particular has been badly misused. I don't think he is playing particularly well, even if Ireland have not used him intelligently.

Cast your mind back to the All Black game in November 2010. Our back row were used intelligently that day irrespective of the result. It was a very specifically designed strategy that our back row be deployed in the 15m channel on both sides of the pitch. It was done with profit and Stephen Ferris picked up a try as a result.

O'Brien is being used 10 metres away from the breakdown off slow ball and is being thumped or felled by chop tackles below his knees by an eager and well-rehearsed greeting party.

He is being fed by a scrumhalf who hasn't the wit to launch him properly and O'Brien has forgotten that some of the best promptings he has gotten from a scrumhalf -- either Eoin Reddan or Isaac Boss -- have come from a really deep line and an inside pass. Our back row will be smashed if they try to go in narrow channels off slow flat ball. If they position themselves wide and as a duo they can cause all sorts of trouble. We have seen flashes of the off-load game we know they can play -- they are just doing it in the wrong sector of the field.

Defensively Ireland will be exposed. They have been surprisingly malleable along the three-quarter line. I think Ireland have to gamble and confuse the French. Silly stuff that will confound their expectations -- sending shooters up every second play, change it around again, and blitz five minutes later, then employ a drift. You might say it's madness or not practical but I can assure you the way we are defending -- irrespective of how good our line speed is -- will be meat and drink to the French.

If Les Kiss thinks that the guy at the end of the passive drift will get away with standing off he is mistaken. The French will figure us out even if we press aggressively. Ireland have to gamble and if they do, they can upset the French who don't like it when you do unexpected things and their energies and concentration to the task can be stretched.

If we force them to channel their energies differently, this will flummox and frustrate them.

What would you expect from a nation who exercised more of its national will fighting Disney and the Big Mac than they did the Nazis? If Ireland express themselves and take a chance they have a chance.

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