French rugby's secret weapon in their quest for improved discipline? Jérôme Garces

Garces has been a hands-on presence at training, refereeing training games and explaining why he blew the whistle, as well as delivering video presentations
French rugby's secret weapon in their quest for improved discipline? Jérôme Garces

Jerome Garces, refereeing a Munster clash in the Champions Cup in 2018. The French whistler has been drafted into the national sides' training camp to officiate training games and take video sessions. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

It's a truism, but no less valid for all that: Ireland and France could not have had more different opening weekends in the 2021 Six Nations.

The facts are stark. Ireland led but ultimately lost a brutal, bruising encounter in Cardiff after Peter O'Mahony was sent off; France romped to a seven-tries-to-one 40-point win over Italy in Rome.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell still believes Ireland have a shot at the Six Nations crown. Just three teams have lost their opening game and recovered to win the title in the 21-year history of the competition. England did it last year, Wales won in 2013 and France in 2006. But there is a chance - Farrell's side have France and England at home, as well as trips to Italy and Scotland.

But there is no doubt that - for any prospective early Six Nations title challenger like France in 2021 - Ireland in Dublin is a different prospect to Italy in Rome, and though France won easily enough last Saturday, they were the first to admit the imperfect nature of their performance.

There was plenty for Farrell and his analysts to take note of and seek to exploit - and plenty for Les Bleus' coaches to work on ahead of Dublin: notably their discipline, round the fringes of the breakdown, and off the bench.

Against Italy, France conceded just nine penalties. It was just the second time in the Fabien Galthie era a referee has pinged them fewer than 10 times - the other occasion was against England in Paris at the start of the 2020 tournament.

But that low final figure hides the fact that they had conceded six of those nine penalties after just 20 minutes, when Italy were at their most competitive.

Galthie admitted: “It's a point of improvement. With hard work, we think it will improve exponentially. We have already reduced by 50% the penalties conceded in the [key] areas."

Captain Charles Ollivon added: "On discipline, we must go even further and raise the level."

France have drafted former international referee Jérôme Garces, now in charge of refereeing standards in French professional rugby, to their pre-tournament training camp in Nice to understand what referees look for and, basically, how they can avoid giving up silly penalties.

"We added [him] to our team to resolve our refereeing problems," head coach Fabien Galthie said at the time.

Garces has been a hands-on presence at training, refereeing training games and explaining why he blew the whistle, as well as delivering video presentations.

It appears to be working - certainly the players are taking notice. Lyon flanker Dylan Cretin said: "He [Garces] gives us feedback directly after he stops a game on what we did well or badly, what we can improve. We reviewed matches where we could do better. We have to work with the referees."

Defence coach Shaun Edwards will have seen positives and negatives last Saturday. His favoured rush defence led to at least one try, courtesy of that Dupont offload - but France were pretty porous around the fringes of the breakdown early on, even as they tried to keep their ruck commitments to a minimum.

Against more clinical opposition it's likely France would have conceded more than the sole try than they did - as it was, they can consider themselves fortunate that Monty Ioane's touchdown following some breath-taking work from scrum-half Stephen Varney's break - in which he managed to flat-foot Antoine Dupont and sell him a delicious dummy - was ruled out for a forward pass.

An earlier break got Italy close to the French line before an unsympathetic offload was knocked on, while the first meaningful attack of the game was an Italian one - but Juan Ignacio Brex got isolated, leading to the penalty that ended with France's opening try.

The positive news for Les Bleus is that they had solved the problem by the second half. This might not be an issue in Dublin, but if it is, Ireland - especially a wounded Ireland - will not be as generously profligate as Italy were if they break through Edwards' defence.

Finally, France will want to improve their bench impact. Last year, Galthie regularly praised what the national squad now calls its 'Finisseurs' for their performances. On Saturday, with the game already dead, his replacements struggled to make their mark - Damian Penaud, so often a threat with ball in hand, in particular, barely got his hands on the thing at a time when scoring should have been easy.

Maybe it was early tournament eagerness to join in the points feast, but a number of players coming off the bench made uncharacteristic errors.

Galthie has already called up La Rochelle prop Uini Atonio to add beef and experience to the front row against Ireland, and will need his bench to add value late in a game where the closing minutes are more likely to be important.

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