ONE scintilla of over-confidence and Ireland get undone at the Aviva tomorrow. One whiff of arrogance, that’s all it would take. There shouldn’t be, and I expect there won’t be. Because if the French bring their A game, I think they will win in Dublin.
Of course, everything about France comes with a big if bolted to it.Maybe I am clouded by living and working among them, but fair to say the French have more potential in their squad than Ireland? The big difference is that Joe Schmidt maximises his players’ capacities and capabilities every single time.
The French can be so inconsistent in their performance they can fluctuate wildly between a 2/10 and an 8/10 – and there’s not many international teams one can say that about.
Multiply that inconsistency across fifteen players and one gets a sense of the pointlessness of predicting what France team turns up on any given Saturday. Jekyll and Hyde stuff like that drives me insane.
We’ve seen glimpses in this championship of the outrageous flair they still possess when the ball is passed out in front of Lamerat, Nakaitaci, and Vakatawa – the latter is sacrificed tomorrow and replaced by Yoann Huget, presumably to deal with Ireland’s high-ball threat.
They key for Guy Noves and his defence coach is how to handle Ireland’s sustained phase attack. The capacity to keep the ball for 20 to 30 phases will have been a massive emphasis in Schmidt’s planning this week.
Ireland going through the phases and undisciplined French forwards giving away brain-dead penalties to make the scoreboard go 3-0, 6-0, 9-0 – then Ireland get a try and suddenly France are looking at each other wondering how they’re sixteen points down.
Readers are probably bored with me going on about French ill-discipline. Even the phrase itself is such a general, broad sweep of a statement. But what measures are they putting in place during the week to ensure you have a disciplined performance on Saturday?
What are the training habits like, what is a player’s personal capacity to be disciplined? At this level, it’s a game of mental fortitude.
The psychologically brittle crumble.The Irish penalty count is about one-third of what France’s regularly is. That is a massive advantage, or to turn it around, a deadweight on French ambition.
But if they somehow halve their penalty count tomorrow - say 15 down to eight - then immediately they become a more difficult proposition and we stop talking about the things that will stop them winning, and begin the debate about them with ball in hand.
There is always talk about Ireland’s back row - and with good reason - but Louis Picamoles can do things even that trio struggle with – which is run over people. His capacity to beat the first tackle is amazing.
Nobody could really predict this or any French team in advance. For example, would I have called the back three of Le Roux, Gourdon and Picamoles, notwithstanding existing injuries?
For every one that’s in, there’s another who could have been. That’s a fundamental weakness. One of Ireland’s greatest rugby traits down the years has been the trust built up among the same lads in the trenches. The French sides don’t have that.
Ultimately, that’s why the French will probably come up short tomorrow. I’m not back-tracking on those opening sentiments. They’re not mutually exclusive. This certainly won’t be easy for Ireland. But for Joe Schmidt and co, there might be uncertainty over one or two selection calls for each game. For French management, there is certainty over one or two positions!
For sure, winning in Dublin would give the Noves project momentum.
They’re nowhere near Championship-winning momentum, but it would be a big scalp. Preparation time has been very different and much improved on what’s happened in the past. France has had a two-week build-up to play Ireland.
They’re in Nice from Thursday to last Sunday, the players had Monday and Tuesday off before ramping it up for the rest of this week.
It’s a moot point how much of that time Noves’ staff has spent on discipline because I can’t possibly know. But they are definitely giving themselves a chance now by the longer, less frenetic build up to Six Nations games.
Noves may be more experienced than Schmidt, but he still has a way to go to eradicate the bad habits French players practice day in day out with their clubs.
Discipline doesn’t arrive with a bow out of the blue when it’s not a daily behavioral thing. There’s talking and planning for this in meetings - and there’s dealing with it when the red mist descends and you can’t control your emotions. Understanding the test match psyche is a study in itself.
It’s all well and good looking at a Powerpoint presentation, but put yourself in there with a heartbeat of 190 beats a minute, and it’s rather different if you’re not pre-disposed to rigorous disciplinary attitudes.
Noves will give the Lopez-Serin partnership at half-back time though it’s hopelessly outmatched by the experienced Murray and Sexton axis. The French combination is in a fledgling stage by comparison.
There’s a bit of chatter about Bordeaux’s Serin but Scotland was his first Six Nations start.
Lopez is still guilty of flaky moments, even with Clermont but Irish tactics may zero in more on the French wings and Lamerat in terms of defending them. Depending on how the possession stats go, if the French forwards are getting across the gain line, you can understand having Nakaitaci in the team all day.
He is an immense, potent finisher, and Huget, Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou are serious talents too.
I know Clermont’s Lamerat has made too many errors, but he’s not far off and could explode soon.
With a little bit better control, he’s an exceptional player.
There’s another thing. Not since the 1950s has a French side gone five consecutive away games without a win and that’s a piece of history Noves doesn’t need.
They’ll be a little bit spooked by how good and efficient Ireland are around the ruck, and they will accord Ireland the respect they’ve earned.
But they’ll be looking for early bridgeheads into the game – a little Irish weakness, or slackness or over-confidence they can expose and exploit with voracious intent. They won’t come to hide.
French teams don’t do that. They dug in against Scotland but had the extra man that day in the Stade crowd.
Ireland may need their equivalent tomorrow evening.
========What a game to win. It was monumental to be at Croker
Ten years ago today. Hardly? A decade since a momentous evening on Jones’ Road for Irish rugby, for Irish sport, for Ireland.
Even then, in those moments on the red carpet, you appreciate ‘this is something’. Recognising Ireland v England at Croke Park for what it was, and what it would become. This was a moment in time, a moment in history. That rare.
And a game to win.
It’s the 10th anniversary and two words still resonate: Respect and Irishness. It was all about the national anthems. One of those weird, spooky days where no-one quite knew what to expect or what was about to happen.
Would violence break out? Would there be booing for God Save the Queen?
You just didn’t know how people were going to react to the English anthem. The answer was with respect and silence.
But by God when the Irish support was invited to echo our own Amhrán na bhfiann, did they sing it with gusto and unchained pride.
There’s no dummy run for days like that. You can’t be braced or prepared. Every Irish player standing in that line is focusing on his emotions – either venting them or controlling them.
What impact would it have had on our memory of February 24, 2007 had England beaten Ireland? We had a chance to do our own bit of memory-making and that worked out superbly too.
The anthem was an unforgettable 90 seconds of every Ireland player’s life - but then there was a game to play.
If you are a gaelic footballer, you dream of playing in Croke Park.
A rugby player dreams of playing for Ireland in Lansdowne Road. But to be allowed to perform in Croke Park as an Irish rugby international, in those circumstances, against that opposition, it’s gotta be good.
And it was very good.
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