Thursday 23 November 2017

Neil Francis: Ireland have to target certain French players to negate their game-plan

Superior back-row trio should give Ireland platform to control Les Bleus’ behemoths

If Ireland can stop Louis Picamoles early, they can negate major parts of the French plan. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
If Ireland can stop Louis Picamoles early, they can negate major parts of the French plan. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Didn’t get up to much last Friday – was sitting in half-heartedly to watch Leinster put 40 points on a poor Edinburgh side. Half-time and the score is 8-3 to the home side and I had a decision to make – ‘Geordie Shore’ or another 40 minutes of this? Apathy reigned – too lazy even to change the channel.

Leinster won a point short of my prediction and then it came to me.  An epiphany! The cliché is really true: there are no easy games in the Pro12 – even against a side as lamentably bad as Edinburgh.

The first half was a game of butchers’ chess – 8-3 was a telling illustration of what was going on out on the paddock. The point being that Leinster went on to play well and eventually win by nearly 40 – an easy victory – yet they have five players off the park, some with serious injuries.

There was some tetchy street fighting going on which in a contact sport you just can’t avoid. Win well on the scoreboard while counting the physical cost. Surely this can be avoided?

Think back to Round 5 of the Champions Cup and Leinster’s pool game against Montpellier at the RDS. Leinster were discommoded by Montpellier’s forward pack of behemoths in the away game. There was no real way of escaping the physical onslaught and so when Montpellier (with no current French national team players in the team) came back to Dublin, a little bit of thinking was required.

You don’t have to hold the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge to decide what to do. It is true that Frans Steyn got a red card for his clothes-liner on Johnny Sexton but the game was already over at that stage.

The scale of the victory was mightily impressive at 57-3 but what was most impressive was that all of the Leinster squad could have done a handy 5k into town for champers after the game. 

Move that Montpellier pack around – constant movement, constant change of direction – go wide at every opportunity. No rest time – pile on the minutes with time in possession and lungs will burn and arms and legs of big men will feel heavier. But get into a dogfight even with a crap side like Edinburgh and you will pay the price.

The France team arrive in our country today with a pack so big it has got its own postcode. There are six or seven forwards, depending on the squad that they announce, that cannot play multi-phase rugby.

Ireland are fitter and geared to cope much better than France when the ball remains in play. If you even look back at Connacht’s performance against Toulouse in France a month ago, the Toulouse pack outgunned the Irish side for bulk and power and yet the longer the game went on the better Connacht became.

It really is a misnomer where French sides struggle as the game becomes looser. A little bit more composure and sang-froid and Connacht would have got the result that they needed. People tell me that France are enjoying a renaissance and they are recovering themselves – beg to differ here. 

A telling illustration is their paucity of skills and this is encapsulated in their once bright young thing Gael Fickou at centre.

France's centre Gael Fickou scores his team's fifth try (Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images)

When he burst onto the scene, Fickou (above) had the same physique as, say, Thierry Henry – big enough frame but lean. Fickou, like Henry, had great pace. The French saw his talent and had the sort of dilemma that conflicts its national league. Will we teach him to pass or will we make him bigger? 

They packed two stone on him, maybe more, and that electric pace is more like a diesel model now. Keep going lads and turn him into Mathieu Bastareaud. Fickou can pass off his right hand but struggles off his left. When France try and play the quick-quick passing game under pressure, the ball goes to ground.  Remi Lamerat can’t pass off either hand and so France won’t trouble Ireland off set plays and will rely on offloads from their forwards to give them opportunity. It is a sad state of affairs that their South African import at full-back, Scott Spedding, is their best footballer and footballing brain. Serge Blanco, smoking his Gauloises in the stand, must be wondering how it ever came to this. France are trying but still can’t pass accurately under pressure. 

Whether France have the wit or the vision to do what Scotland did and load their outside players in the five-metre line remains to be seen. The trick is to be able to get the ball to them. Ireland, I think, will defend with greater width and this is where I see one of their major competitive advantages coming to the fore.

Our 6 and 7 will be too good at the tackle zone for the French. The Scots, with an average back-row, managed to either pinch or slow promising French ball. I think our guys will do a major job here and the French will need to commit a whole lot more to the breakdown to ensure they retain the pill. Ireland can stand off and smother their one-off runner until their pods run out of steam trying to recycle. I expect Ireland to do a major number on the turnover front.

It is the difference between the Top 14 and the Pro12 – the Celtic sides are just so much better on the ground.

Ireland have to target certain French players to negate their game-plan. The first guy to neutralise is Louis Picamoles. Leinster’s Heineken pool game against Northampton in Franklin’s Gardens was a classic in how to take out a big ball-carrying No 8. Picamoles is so effective when he manages to break the first tackle – once he has done that he is off to the races.

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Seán O'Brien was left out of the trip to Chicago. Photo: Sportsfile

That night Seán O’Brien (above), Jamie Heaslip and Josh van der Flier got the giant by the bootlaces and took him out of the game.

Go low and make your tackles below the knee and clamp the arm tight around the leg and that is as far as he goes. Go high and you will get bumped with a power fend or the shoulder and the leg drive will get him well over the gain-line. 

Pretty much like Billy Vunipola – if you keep a team’s main line-breaker quiet then the game is half over. Picamoles rarely passes the ball and so there is not much risk of an offload by taking him low. 

This game so will be down to how the back-rows sort each other out. Ireland have such a difference in class here that if they play to par they will control all areas of influence in open play. 

I do like the look of scrum-half Baptiste Serin. He has a lovely whipped accurate pass but he lets Carlos Lopez do most of the tactical kicking and so Conor Murray, who has been relatively quiet in the first two games, will need to impose himself here – he has a job to do.

I thought Noa Nakaitaci was the worst player to play for a serious side in the 2015 World Cup. His performance in the quarter-final against New Zealand was calamitous. He had no idea what to do defensively. That lack of awareness when you don’t have the ball never leaves you. The French can coach some of it out of you but once the pressure comes his demons will reappear.

Virimi Vakatawa is a better all-round player than Nakaitaci but that is not to say that Joe Schmidt won’t target him as well. A mixture of box-kicks five metres in front and five metres behind and a group of unruly Millwall FC supporters chasing and scrapping in the air. There are so many ways to beat this French side.

Schmidt has a good record against the French and his knowledge of how they tick is crucial, and as venerable and cagey as Guy Noves undoubtedly is, Schmidt has him for smarts and structure.

A game of constant motion and accurate box-kicking from Murray will put Ireland in the ascendancy and if their passing game clicks Ireland will dominate. If they play well, they will win. If they play really well – four tries are not beyond them. Nobody is allowed say that though.

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