Beware French counter-attack

Ireland decided to front upagainst the Italians but had the visitors had a kicker, it could have ended disastrously.

Their South African-born out-half Tobias Botes is a shocking kicker at all levels, never mind international, and his strike rate of 25% was a real frustration to the Italian pack. He wouldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat and for Italy to avoid the wooden spoon they need to find a 75% man quickly.

The game started at a very slow pace and the tackles stats showed Ireland made 70 and Italy made 125, which is well below the norms expected from a game at this level.

Ireland had a tackle completion rate of 98%, which is as close to perfect as you are likely to achieve, with only missed one tackle on the official stats. There was a huge increase in our line speed from the Welsh game but Italy don’t present the same threat out wide as any of the other teams in the competition, which makes it easier to do.

That is the area where Ireland will win or lose against France.

France’s stats at the weekend show that over the two matches both sides have played to date, the pace is likely to be slow for long periods. The ‘game pace’ stat shows both teams play much slower than the rest of the teams in the Six Nations in the first half.

France like to keep the ball at the back of the ruck, gathering dust as much as they can. They hold onto it a lot, which would be impossible if the Six Nations introduced the three-second rule currently used in the Super 15.

It is a ruse though. They have won both games despite having the fifth lowest possession, the lowest territory and lowest time spent inside the opposition’s 22 at just 6.3%. When you compare this to Ireland, with twice as much time in the opposition’s 22, 13.6%, it shows that France are likely to force a slow pace and allow Ireland to have possession.

It will allow them to play to their strength — the counter-attack. They go wide immediately from turnovers and Julien Malzieu and Vincent Clerc are lethal.

In attack France will break one out of every six tackle attempts by the opposition, or one every 64 seconds. Ireland break one in every 9.3 tackles or one every 89 seconds so, needless to say, when they break they are more dangerous than us.

Every opposition they have played in this Six Nations have avoided kicking to them. Clearly no one wants to encourage the famous French run-it-back-from-anywhere-and-score approach. But when you force the French to kick they are weak — 13% of their tactical kicks from the hand led to errors, which is the worst in the competition. Compare this to Ireland, where 6% of tactical kicks led to errors, and it shows that a good defence which forces France to kick will be rewarded.

But they also need to limit France’s steals at the ruck. Both sides are averaging six per game but Ireland pip the French as they are stealing 7.1% of the defensive ruck compared to France’s 5.1%. If France continue their average they will turn over the ball and start a dangerous counter-attack one in 20 times we take a ball into a ruck.

This will lead to pressure on our defence, which has missed one in 12.4 tackles so far. France fair worse missing one in eight tackle attempts but Ireland offload less than France, with four and eight per game respectively.

Our kicker, whoever Declan Kidney picks, is not likely to get many attempts at goal though, as France concede the lowest penalties in the competition, averaging 6.5 to Ireland’s 8.5 per game. But the really interesting thing is they only concede a penalty a game in possession, which means they are very effective at the attacking breakdown. Ireland will target France’s lineout to steal possession and it has been going well, pinching 16.5% of opposition throws. Lineouts for France are thrown to the front, then middle and seldom to the back, while Ireland favour the middle where O’Connell backs himself.

Ireland have to rob a few balls to deprive France a platform but they must also avoid turning over the ball. It will come down to who gets to play their game plan on the day.

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