Donal Lenihan outlines three key battles to decide today’s Six Nations clash between Ireland and France.
1. Schmidt’s clarity over Noves’ philosophy
The head coaches facing off today in Dublin have enjoyed spectacular success during their respective club reigns.
Ireland’s Joe Schmidt has carried his successful template into the international arena with two Six Nations championships to his name in his first three seasons in charge.
Many felt Guy Noves rose to the top coaching job in France at least eight years too late and found things difficult at first when inheriting a squad that performed well below expectations at the 2015 World Cup.
A fourth-place finish in his maiden Six Nations last season did nothing to suggest otherwise.
Since then, however, he has galvanised his squad, sorted out selection - I believe the three changes made for today’s clash strengthen the French side - and succeeded in getting his players playing for each other.
With more preparatory time and a welcome break from the monotony of their national training base at Marcoussis - they were based in Nice last week - this French side is relishing the prospect of facing Ireland.
The challenge for the French players is in delivering a rugby philosophy favoured by Noves without a detailed plan to implement it. Noves has encouraged his teams to play in a specific way.
A philosophy - a theory or attitude held by someone, in this case Noves - acts as a guiding principle for behaviour.
With Noves it’s all about keeping the ball alive, playing out of the tackle and staying on your feet.
It is short on specifics however and, at times, the French are guilty of forcing passes that simply aren’t on in order to satisfy the coach’s vision of how they should play. Ireland will seek to capitalise on that.
In the opposite corner, Schmidt is big on detail and players are in no doubt exactly what is expected of them in each scenario. He is well aware France will force things today and, as a result, will look to prey on French mistakes.
For example, France tend move the ball wide immediately from restarts deep in their own twenty two - similar to Connacht - but don’t look overly convincing when doing it.
Expect Ireland to push up hard on those restarts and force the French into error or into conceding turnovers. Without any great structure to their play, when put under pressure, the French players tend to do their own thing leading to confusion and uncertainty.
Ireland will seek to exploit that.
2. French physicality a major obstacle
Cast your mind back to Cardiff and that excellent 24-9 pool success over the French at the World Cup 16 months ago.
We failed to appreciate it at the time but that victory came at a very high cost. For Peter O’Mahony, Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton, their World Cup dream ended that day in a game of intense physicality.
The personnel may have changed significantly - only six of the French team that started that match feature from the off today in the cull undertaken by Noves - but this French team pack the same physical punch, if anything, with a bit more athleticism.
If you harbour any doubts on that front, consider this. After their round two clash in Paris a fortnight ago, four Scottish players went through head injury assessments while nine failed to make it to the post-match function they were so beaten up.
By comparison, France emerged relatively unscathed, just losing flanker Loann Goujon to a fractured sinus.
This is a brutish French pack and, to avoid getting beaten up, Ireland will have to box clever today.
The challenge facing Schmidt’s side is to integrate a system that maintains the multi-phase rugby which so often serves to wear the opposition down and force them into conceding penalties, without engaging in quite as much direct physical confrontation as they normally do.
If Ireland continues to take the ball into contact over regular bursts of 20 phases, it is inevitable there will be casualties. With Wales and England to come, that could prove costly.
Yet the way to beat France is by keeping their big forwards on the move, dragging them around the field and making them retreat in order to support the back three. That’s where Ireland’s superior kicking game comes into play.
3 Ireland’s kicking game primed to exploit vulnerability
The return to arms of Johnny Sexton could not be better timed, even if Paddy Jackson has proved more than an able deputy.
He may have had ‘no divine right’ to be selected after his most recent injury lay-off but, once fit, Schmidt was always going to pick him.
Sexton understands the way French players tick from his time with Racing Metro and knows how to expose their vulnerabilities.
The current crop is very dangerous when in possession but still have a tendency to be lazy without the ball.
In that respect, the variety and accuracy of the kicking game that Sexton and Conor Murray bring to proceedings will be crucial.
A key focus of Ireland’s kicking strategy will be the French back three.
Noves is well aware of this and has acted accordingly by sacrificing the attacking threat provided by Sevens specialist Virimi Vakatawa in favour of the defensive solidity and aerial prowess offered by Yoann Huget.
All modern wingers and full backs have to work in tandem to cover the backfield and need to be interchangeable in their roles.
This didn’t always happen when Nao Nakaitaci, Scott Spedding and Vakatawa featured together in the opening rounds.
Schmidt will be disappointed that Noves has moved to address this issue but that doesn’t mean the French back three will be spared an aerial bombardment.
Both Spedding and Nakaitaci have been on the receiving end of Ireland’s kicking strategy in the past with mixed results.
They will be put under intense pressure by the excellent kick/chase that Simon Zebo Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls provide on the tail end of Murray’s hanging box kicks.
In order to control territory with the boot and keep this big French side on the retreat, the Irish forwards need to deliver a regular supply of front-foot ball for Murray to make an impact.
The Irish back row looks better equipped to generate turnovers and to slow down French ball at the breakdown, even if relative newcomer Kevin Gourdon has impressed me in this area for the French.
If Ireland can achieve parity at the set piece while gaining a vital edge at the breakdown, they should be good enough to kick on from there even if France have the firepower to push this contest to the wire. It could well come down to who carries most impact off the bench.
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