Coping with Le Crunch

Sometimes teams make the mistake of paying France too much respect

Watching France saunter around Murrayfield last Sunday made me think about what their much-maligned former coach, Marc Lievremont, must have been thinking as he sat in front of his television back home.

When Philippe Saint-Andre assumed the reigns after the World Cup the only pronouncement he made was that he would seek to rid the French of the infuriating inconsistency that has dogged their performances at international for well over a decade. Under Lievremont at the World Cup things went from the ridiculous to the sublime within a period of three weeks, when they were beaten 19-14 by Tonga in their last pool game before losing by a single point to New Zealand in the final despite outplaying the hosts over the course of the 80 minutes.

I spoke to a member of the French management team, who was with the squad for the duration of the World Cup, before the cancelled game in Paris three weeks ago and he said the whole experience was weird. He also said it was now only beginning to dawn on the squad how close they were to winning the Webb Ellis trophy. That, he felt, would fuel their desire to win the Six Nations this season, for their own sanity if nothing else.

How then do you begin to rationalise that ambition with the abject performance in Edinburgh last Sunday? Defensively France were appalling. There was no urgency whatsoever in their play and they were completely non-committed to the breakdown. The ridiculous thing was that France would have led by three points at the break (it was 10-10) had Morgan Parra not missed a penalty on the stroke of half-time.

That was after Scotland played some of their best rugby for years, racing into a 10-point lead after 25 minutes. One flash of genius from new centre Wesley Fofana on the half hour which yielded a try was about the only thing of note the French achieved in the opening half. That is the problem with this French outfit. They get away with just about doing enough, and that makes them vulnerable.

That point has not been lost on Saint-Andre, who after reviewing a video of the game on Monday, commented: “In the Scottish game, we were too tame at the beginning; we lost too many balls in the rucks, especially in the first half-hour, and missed too many tackles. These are the main areas we will work on this week. What we really need to change is that we have to hit the ground running from the kick-off and not sleepwalk through the opening 20 minutes like we did against Italy and Scotland. If we do that against the Irish, it will not go well for us at the Stade de France.”

If you followed Toulouse every week you would experience the same feeling of frustration. With eight players in the French squad last weekend, maybe it is no coincidence that the same mindset exists. In this season’s Heineken cup, Toulouse got away with scraping past Gloucester by four points at home before losing there to Harlequins. Gloucester finished the job in the return tie at Kingsholm but Toulouse sneaked into the quarter-finals by virtue of Connacht’s sensational win over Quins in Galway. Even then they are rewarded with an away contest against Edinburgh who have no history of achievement in this tournament.

Having watched France struggle against Tonga, Canada, Japan, England and 14-man Wales at the World Cup, I am convinced that if you can keep them under sustained pressure for long enough periods, they will crack. Sometimes teams make the mistake of paying them too much respect and you assume they are better than they are. It gets into players’ heads.

Ireland’s mantra for this week in training and emblazoned on the dressing room wall in the Stade de France next Sunday should be: “No inhibitions — no regrets.” On far too many occasions Ireland have shown too much respect to their hosts, stood off and were blown away by half-time. They cannot allow that to happen on Sunday. Scotland in Murrayfield showed the way for Ireland, shifting the point of attack constantly, running back at the French and exposing a very porous-looking defence.

At the heart of France’s best defensive efforts in recent times has been an Englishman, Dave Ellis. He masterminded that magnificent defensive display against New Zealand in the famous quarter-final success at the 2007 World Cup. New backs coach Patrice Lagisquet, a magnificent winger in his time, has assumed responsibility for that aspect of the French game at present and, judging by last Sunday’s efforts, France look uncertain as to how they want to defend. They have a week to sort out what is normally a very strong aspect of their game.

Ireland must seek to build on the most promising aspects of last Saturday’s game against Italy and get the ball into the hands of Rob Kearney, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe as often as possible. On his first ever start in international rugby in only his second cap, Scotland’s Stuart Hogg showed just what can be achieved when you run straight and hard at the French, especially if they are less than 100% up for the fight which appeared to be that case last weekend. Knowing Ireland’s luck, that is unlikely to be a factor this weekend. The other injury enforced change that won’t suit Ireland is the recall of Clement Poitrenaud to the French squad on the back of injury to Maxime Medard.

Medard is a mirror image of Poitrenaud in the early part of his career. His first option is to run back at you even when he is isolated. Ireland could have exploited that predictability whereas Poitrenaud has learned from his youthful frailties and will pose a handful if he starts in tandem with clubmate Vincent Clerc and the outstanding Julien Malzieu

Declan Kidney announces his side today but it will be a surprise if he makes any changes. The Irish bench have played a big role in the opening two games, with Donnacha Ryan making some spectacular contributions. In addition, Eoin Reddan, Sean Cronin, Peter O’Mahony and Tom Court have all made their mark. Ronan O’Gara’s personal milestone of becoming Ireland’s most capped player in history passed almost unnoticed on Saturday but he continues to show that he has a massive role to play in this set-up.

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