Donal Lenihan looks ahead to Ireland's clash with France.
In a week that signalled the end of the road for the great Paul O’Connell, it is somewhat comforting to suggest that Ireland head into a key encounter against France in Paris with a sizeable advantage on the leadership front. That is one of the great legacies the Munster giant has left behind him.
O’Connell demanded high standards and set the bar at such a high level that those following have a clear understanding of what is required to win tight international contests. In his successor Rory Best, the returning Sean O’Brien, former captain Jamie Heaslip, Munster leader CJ Stander, and the class half back pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, Ireland is blessed with totemic figures in key areas of the field.
Contrast that with France. Since that epic World Cup encounter between the two sides only four months ago, France have lost a clutter of influential characters in long time captain Thierry Dusautoir, former skippers Pascal Pape and Nicolas Mas, influential hooker Dimitri Szarzewski along with the enigmatic Freddie Michalak, all of whom have retired from international rugby.
In addition, vastly experienced figures such as Morgan Parra, Mathieu Bastareaud, Vincent Debaty, and Brice Dulin have been deemed surplus to requirements by new coach Guy Noves, while two massively influential figures, Louis Picamoles and Wesley Fofana, miss out due to injury.
Therefore with only three starters and five of the match day squad that played in Cardiff — Ireland retain 13 including nine starters — this French side has barely been introduced to each other.
Consequently they enjoy nothing like the symmetry and understanding that Joe Schmidt’s side has accumulated over the last three seasons. That void in leadership should prove significant when this contest is there to be won and lost in the final quarter.
It is difficult to understand the logic behind some of the changes Noves has made to his front five. The introduction of Alexandre Flanquart to the second row ahead of last week’s debutant Paul Jedrasiak is a logical alteration given that the threat posed by the Irish lineout is much more potent than Italy’s. Flanquart is a proven performer on that front with Stade Francais and, with Picamoles ruled out, he is a big man and will add to their options out of touch.
The only area of continuity that France enjoyed post World Cup was in the front row where the powerful scrummaging unit of Eddy Ben Arous, Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani offered stability and a rock solid scrum platform.
Noves has chosen to break that up and leave his first choice props on the bench. The clear intent here is for those two to make a powerful impact in the second half when Irish legs start to get heavy after the demands of a six-day turnaround from that energy sapping draw against Wales. Either way, Joe Schmidt will be pleased to see that happen given the difficulties Ireland faced in the scrum last weekend. If your scrum is in trouble from the outset, the psychological damage can last throughout the game as the referee will make his mind up early.
While Uini Atonio is a huge unit, he is not as disruptive a scrummager as Slimani. The new loose-head Jefferson Piorot only won his first cap off the bench last weekend and he too is more noted for a high work-rate around the field rather than as a punishing scrummager which should suit Nathan White.
The concern for Schmidt is that France’s more disruptive scrummaging props will be introduced around the 50-minute mark and could well end up facing Ireland’s less experienced duo of James Cronin and Tadhg Furlong. If the game is still in the balance at that stage it could offer France a point of difference.
There are so many things wrong with the international game in France it is impossible to expect Noves to effect major change in the short space of time granted to him to prepare for this championship.
What he has already achieved, if the evidence of their opening game against Italy is anything to go by, is infuse his players with a positive attacking mindset and a licence to play heads-up rugby. By drafting in the scintillating running talent of Virimi Vakatawa direct from the World Sevens circuit, despite the fact that he hadn’t played a game of 15-a-side since December 2013, says everything you need to know about where Noves wants to bring this side. That makes them very dangerous.
The fact that he has also recalled Teddy Thomas, who has been out injured for a considerable period of time, also adds spectacularly to that attacking mindset. All well and good but in the modern international game, every side will be without the ball for long periods and that requires structure and organisation in defence.
France were all over the place against Italy and showed no urgency or hunger when Italy were in possession. If that continues against Ireland then no better coach than Schmidt to deliver some of his favoured power plays to exploit that lack of defensive organisation.
The fact that the back three of Vakatawa, Thomas, and full-back Maxime Medard have never played together offers Johnny Sexton massive opportunities from the boot and with ball in hand. A back three must understand each other and work in unison to cover the back field. This trio have the gas and stepping ability to cut Ireland apart in attack but could prove problematic when it comes to defending the five metre channels.
The one thing France developed under Philippe Saint-Andre was a good understanding of how to defend as a collective and an impressive line speed in closing the attacking space available to opposition teams. The first movement of the French midfield last Saturday when Italy had the ball was backwards. They were on their heels throughout and allowed the Italians run at them all day. No attacking midfield is allowed that luxury. Jonathan Danty, on debut, and Gael Fickou applied no press whatsoever and defensively looked all at sea at times. The introduction of the more experienced Maxime Mermoz for Fickou made a big difference on that front and I’m not surprised he has been included from the off today. The question is whether or not France had sufficient time to address those problems during the week. Defensive systems take time for players to buy into.
Unless Noves has made massive strides on that front over the last six days, Schmidt is bound to have identified where the holes are. If Ireland manage to expose and exploit those weaknesses then an unbeaten record against France that now stretches to five games could be embellished even further.
The only caveat is whether they have recovered sufficiently, both mentally and physically, to deliver a performance with the sustained intensity they achieved against Wales. If they do, they will win.
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