Saturday 25 November 2017

Tony Ward: Superior half-backs can swing war of attrition Ireland's way

Johnny Sexton has the edge over France out-half Camille Lopez
Johnny Sexton has the edge over France out-half Camille Lopez
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

As a player, particularly a back, the game you dreaded was the French - whether it was Paris or Dublin. You knew that if you gave away possession with a loose kick or a sloppy turnover at the tackle, it was as close as it gets to rugby hara-kiri.

They ran back from depth at pace with a verve and panache that no other nation could match. Not even the All Blacks came close. New Zealand won in other ways but when it came to off-the-cuff rugby, nobody could challenge the French.

Yes, they still produce players with free-running talent and flair - such as Wesley Fofana, Teddy Thomas and Yoann Huget - but the modern game imposes different constraints.

This is not an 'ah but in our day' whinge, just an acknowledgement that what was once so scary about Les Bleus is of minuscule relevance in today's world of organised defence, power carries and brute force in smashing the gain-line.

The French used to attack space when the rest of the world attacked bodies; now they too have joined the ranks looking to secure victory through strangulation.

Of course the potential to counter is still there, but when did you last see a French try that took your breath away? Would I like to see one such score this afternoon? Strange as it may seem, my answer is yes.

Of course I still want Ireland to win but something in me yearns for the French ways of old.

Last week in Paris we witnessed the French bludgeon against the attempted Scottish rapier.

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The Scots gave it their best shot, scoring the game's only try, but the French won ugly and these days victories are the only currency that matters.

France under Philippe Saint-Andre trade in modern rugby reality, sadly. Winning any which way trumps losing with brio every time. How can you argue with that?

So prepare for trench warfare like never before as Ireland look to meet the French juggernaut head on.

I suspect the Irish emphasis will be on moving the area of contact and battle for the gain-line at least a pass or two beyond the fringe of scrum, ruck and maul - allowing, that is, for a certain Mathieu Bastareaud.

Last week in Rome we witnessed two distinct game-plans. In the first half, a limited course, seldom moving beyond Ian Keatley. In the second a very definite attempt at upping the tempo and moving the ball from side to side.

There will be no such extremes this afternoon. Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien (in particular) have been recalled for a reason.

The return of Heaslip, O'Brien and Johnny Sexton - three of our key men - is a massive boost, even if there may be an element of ring-rust for O'Brien and Sexton.

From Peter O'Mahony, through O'Brien, Heaslip, Conor Murray and Sexton, we have as strong a core as there is in world rugby at this point in time, and I don't make that assertion lightly.

To be fair to Saint-Andre, he has given Camille Lopez his head, giving measured and controlled tactical variation to the ultra-power game.

However, Lopez still gives a bit to Sexton, while Murray too has the edge over Rory Kockott.

Anything close to set-piece equality and the Irish halves could well prove the difference.

Goal-kicking too will be vital, and here Sexton, despite his time out, will hold his own.

I alluded to the 'bad traveller' myth earlier in the week and discounted it for the rubbish it is. The French are good travellers and particularly enjoy coming to Dublin, so leave that one on hold.

You can accuse them of being temperamental, but given the World Cup year that's in it, the nature of last weekend's win over the Scots allied to a coaching regime under pressure, you can expect a fully focused France to take the field this evening.

Although clearly not yet in full operational sync, given four players returning from injury, I still cannot recall a stronger Irish squad.

Five or possibly six of the replacements are real impact players. Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Marty Moore (that would be some front-row to unleash en bloc on the hour), Iain Henderson and Ian Madigan can make a real difference off the bench, and Jordi Murphy certainly has the potential to do so.

Neither Isaac Boss nor Felix Jones could be described as impact substitutes, but what both bring to the table is an ability to see a game out. Each is hugely experienced, with Jones in the best form of his career.

Schmidt trusts him implicitly, and the Munster full-back has been repaying that trust all season.

Our record against the French is abysmal over the last few decades; the 'bad travellers' have recorded four wins and a draw from their last six visits to Dublin.

Still, take Ireland to make it two in a row against Les Bleus, and nine on the bounce against all-comers.

We would be mad to tinker with Schools Rugby

From time to time I get abusive emails criticising my respect for and support of rugby in the schools.

It is a tiny minority, and needless to say they get short shrift.

Underage rugby in the schools and clubs is as important now as it has ever been. Perhaps even more so.

I have said it many times before and repeat again now: the day we tinker with rugby in the schools and alter a system that has served Irish rugby so well, we are on the slippery slope to nowhere.

I mention this again now at the end of a week in which we have witnessed some truly extraordinary cup ties of high intensity and skill in Leinster and Munster.

Certainly anyone privileged enough to be present in Donnybrook to witness the exceptional ability and organisation from the Clongowes v St Michael's and Blackrock v Roscrea ties, would surely agree that we'd be mad to change anything.

To hail the exceptional commitment to rugby in the schools is not criticism of rugby in the clubs. We are blessed to have both.

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