Hand fearsome France the initiative and they’ll bury us

1. The Tactical Battle

Italy are entirely predictable in the way they play, France are just about capable of anything. While accepting that Italy scored a great try with five minutes left, they’re very one dimensional and therefore easier to defend against.

France are lethal from turnovers when their first instinct is to attack and the support channels are flooded with runners. It helps that their confidence appears to be back after the Australian debacle in November and they have an abundance of quality.

Ireland will have to think clearly about how they are going to approach this contest. If they kick badly to the back three of Poitrenaud, Medard and Huget, they’ll be skinned if they don’t close the space and their chase is not well choreographed. On the other hand, if the game becomes too loose, Ireland could end up facilitating the way France want to play.

However, Ireland cannot afford to go into their shells and must have the confidence to run at the French. It would help if Ireland’s attacking game was sharper and more clinical at the moment. The amount of handling errors that pockmarked the autumn series and resurfaced again in Rome will not do against opposition of this calibre.

Defensively, France have been more vulnerable than at any stage under defence coach Dave Ellis and with yet another new midfield partnership in Traille and Rougerie they must be tested. Rougerie looked all at sea at outside centre against Australia after winning the vast majority of his international caps on the wing. However, he’s come back well from that experience with Clermont Auvergne. Brian O’Driscoll must test just how comfortable he is in this most demanding defensive role.

If Ireland are to win tomorrow they must dictate where and how this game is played. Ronan O’Gara learned over the years how to control the tempo of test match rugby from out half. Jonny Sexton is still learning the art at international level. In this respect he is no different to the ever improving Francois Trinh-Duc. Their head to head will be crucial.

2.The physical battle

ANDY ROBINSON was left in awe after watching the French pack do a demolition job on his eight last weekend, despite fielding Scotland’s biggest ever pack in the Six Nations. Bear in mind this Scottish unit was an even stronger than the one that subdued Argentina (twice) and South Africa over the last seven months.

Everywhere you look, France reek of physicality. Italy were equally as big but lack the skill levels, vision and awareness of space that France possess. Even their backline is physically imposing with the midfield of Trinh-Duc, Traille and Rougerie all big men, complemented by steppers and flyers in the back three. Even here, Lievremont has replaced the quick small men of the autumn in Marc Andreu and Alexis Palisson with a much bigger trio who possess all the same attributes.

The real physical test comes up front. Forced to buy the Daily Telegraph on my retreat from Rome last Sunday night, the six words that stood out for me were penned by Paul Ackford when awarding a 3/10 in his ratings to Scottish and Lions tight head Euan Murray: “completely and utterly blitzed in the scrum”.

The one consolation here is that the man who destroyed Murray, Thomas Domingo, is familiar to Mike Ross after already acquitting himself quite well against the diminutive loose head twice this season for Leinster. Question is who learned more from those encounters — Ross or Domingo?

France will definitely chase Ireland in the scrum and will also seek an advantage out of touch. The return of Jamie Heaslip expands Ireland’s lineout options and also offers them a chance of competing with Harinordoquy and Bonnaire at the tail. Ireland should also seek to add more variety to their lineout play and not be afraid to cut to five men with a view to launching players like Sean O’Brien and David Wallace at the French midfield.

The breakdown proved problematic for Ireland last weekend with too much slow ball being delivered and subsequently Tomás O’Leary was smothered on occasions by Sergio Parisse. France will attempt to do the same thing and Ireland must be committed to clearing French bodies out of the way.

This will take a toll and when it comes to the respective benches, France have an incredible mix of talent and experience waiting in the wings with Chabal, Thion and Marconnet ready to supplement the forward effort while behind the scrum the thought of Yachvili, Jauzion and Clerc waiting to do damage is a little disconcerting.

3. The psychological battle

DESPITE all the advantages that France bring to Dublin, the battle of the top six inches is the first one to be highlighted when the French take to the road. That said this particular squad have a history of performing well away from the high expectations at the Stade de France. After all, their best performance in the 2007 World Cup — which they hosted — took place away from the Parisian pressure cooker against New Zealand in Cardiff. However, their mental state is something that Ireland must test from the off. They must get this French side on the retreat, make them turn and smoother them in the tackle. In that respect they should take a leaf from the Italian play book and learn from the type of pressure that was put on them last week. This French team does not react well when they fall behind and must not be allowed the time and space to settle into the game. The Aviva crowd have a role to play here also. Five of their team were on the receiving end there in December when Leinster completely dominated a very good Clermont side.

Mentally, Ireland are stronger and proved that once again in the closing minutes in the Stadio Flaminio when they had the composure, vision and clarity to engineer that winning drop goal at the death. They were playing against the clock at that stage and won. This French team, now that Lievremont has picked his best players in their best positions, is a very good side but only if they are allowed to xpress themselves. Therein lies the challenge for Kidney, O’Driscoll and the rest of the players.

If after 60 minutes, Ireland are in touch they have a chance. Ireland must sow the seeds of doubt in French minds right from the off. If they are still asking the questions in the final quarter, then France could be found wanting. If France are allowed to settle and find their rhythm, they will win.

Picture: Jonathan Sexton: Still learning the art of controlling tempo at international level.

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