MARCOUSSIS, PARIS — I’ve put a dateline on today’s piece for context. I’m doing my coaching badge studies this week at the home of the French rugby federation. As a vox pop to tee up Sunday’s World Cup game against Ireland, it’s proved instructive.
It’s a very impressive set-up and they’ve been detailing France’s long-term rugby strategies for us — the succession stakes, their talent identity programmes. When you are talking about a country of 64 million people, the depth of the next generation player pool is as broad as it is deep.
France has got its act together big time, and they’re going to be scary in a few years time. They will have a potent mix of race of different genetics and with such a explosive cocktail, it’s difficult to see anything but success.
We had a practical on scrummaging, using members of the elite French U19 squad. They were the same size as the Munster pack of years ago. They are monsters.
Yet none of that has been as eye-opening as the shift in attitude towards Ireland after last Sunday’s performance against Italy. From a point on the spectrum of limited expectation, the French are now bordering on over-confidence on the basis of what they interpret as a stuttering performance from an under-cooked Ireland. The shift has been incredible. Now the French are sure they are going to win.
It’s not quite arrogance. They respect Ireland and appreciate that Ireland are a well-oiled machine, but seeing them struggle to such an extent last Sunday has given the French a shot of self-belief.
Deep down, and I got this from some of the fringe French players, they didn’t believe they could beat Ireland. That’s changed now.
That pleases me. I liked that there was no Irish player offering up excuses last weekend. They know they were off the pace physicality-wise, but it’s impossible to recreate that in a training environment when you are peaking for a certain game down the track. With respect, you won’t get that against Canada or Romania. And in the video analysis sessions of Italy-Canada, deep down the Irish players weren’t going to fear losing.
Fear will there on Sunday, creating different chemicals and adrenaline coursing through the body. That hasn’t been there to date in this tournament. That equates to a better performance. Mental preparation is key.
Where Ireland has always had a distinct advantage is the care each player has for each other. That’s always been a strength for Ireland and not so for France. I played beside Gordon D’Arcy for 10 years, and though I was never his best friend, I didn’t have to be. But if he got into a scrape, I cared genuinely for him and looked out for him on the pitch. Not that I could physically stop an aggressor, but if someone was having a cheap shot, I was there.
Because both of us were in green, the respect was massive. That bond hasn’t been as deep in the French team back through the years.
Whether they’ve had the opportunity or inclination to address that in their unprecedentedly long pre-tournament camp, we will wait and see. I doubt it. I don’t think the bonds are as deep when the pressure intensifies, I don’t think they are as united as a team — and that’s where Ireland have an advantage. In the professional era, naturally there’s a far higher turnover of players, thus a lot of French players are not as secure of their place as there would be in Ireland — is that a strength or a weakness?
I’ve said here many times, Ireland has a better coach and better captain, and more leaders throughout the team. It’s a legacy issue in French rugby, developing leaders. The turnover in the French national team makes it virtually impossible for a potential leader to feel secure in his ability to call the shots.
Look at the problems they have at 10 — they’ve gone back to someone who made his debut 15 years ago, and there’s no short-term succession plan there. Freddie Michalak is an old school player and he can be got at physically. But the impression television and pundits create of him is erroneous — he may look mercurial, lazy, off the cuff, but if you respect what team-mates say — and I do — he is extremely hard working, diligent, a good student of the game. He has simplified his kicking technique for the benefit of the team, and is doing that very well.
The French have had a 10-day build up to Sunday, which is relevant not only because every extra day matters, but because they’ve had 10 uninterrupted days to fine-tune their dismantling of Ireland.
French historians cannot remember the last time their squad has had such a collective block or preparation time — not even on a summer tour — and this after a hefty block of pre-World Cup camp time at altitude. They will come ready to play. The article in Midi Olympique last Monday about Johnny Sexton by my Racing coach Maurent Labit was an honest assessment of Johnny’s time here.
The reaction, of course, has not been dissimilar to that which accompanied an interview I did pre the Leicester game back in 2006 at Welford Road — segments of the article selected for juicy headlines. Labit also admitted it was a big failure for him as a person and a coach not to get the best out of Johnny, which took a lot of honesty and character. It’s easy to pick a point or two but the knowledgeable French will know that Sexton under Joe Schmidt will be ready to fire on Sunday.
With Schmidt, this World Cup is a new slate. It’s Joe’s slate. There’s been a complete clearout of all baggage from the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, indeed of anything under previous coaching regimes. I doubt there’s even a comment on what was done under any former coach at this stage. It’s his ball and under Schmidt, Ireland have been hugely consistent in their performances.
And here’s the key. Nobody in that team room will be treating this as their be all and end all, their All-Ireland final. Because it’s not. That’s the mistake those on the outside are making — next week’s quarter-final is so much more important. There’s isn’t that gun-to-the-head feeling like ‘if you lose you go missing, if you don’t perform, you never want to be seen in your neighbourhood again’ type of thing. It’s a big game in terms of shaping their destiny at this tournament but it’s not a trap door job — there’s a quarter-final to be played no matter what.
The French mentality is such that they’ll feel they can beat the All Blacks in the last eight if they have to. It’s not like they haven’t done it before.
But they haven’t faced Joe Schmidt’s World Cup playbook before. And they can’t look around them in moments of peril and see the army of generals around Paul O’Connell. Their over-confidence is misplaced.
Back to the studies.
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