The Green Eye :: France (H)

Beating France, they say, is a matter of tempo.

If you get enough tempo, France will wilt and when they wilt, the chances will usually come. It’s up to you to take those chances but if you do, the win is there for you – all you need to do is create the environment to take it.

Ireland have tried to get that tempo the last two times we’ve faced Les Bleus. We got that tempo in 2016 but couldn’t convert our dominance into points and ended up losing 10-9 in a dull game. The last two games – 2017 & 2018 – were played out in wet, greasy weather conditions that made tempo incredibly hard to generate and that’s been reflected in how close both games have been. Playing France is always incredibly physical – even if you play them in kerbs – so anything you can do to burn their physical and mental energy from the contest at hand will help you. French forwards like smashing you on both sides of the ball. They don’t like running laterally ruck to ruck, setting defensive position and then running to another ruck before jogging back and forth to avoid the offside line. I mean, who does? The rugby they play every week is slow – relatively speaking – and doesn’t prepare the French for the ball in play time you experience at test level, in my opinion. You have to make that preparation – or the perceived lack of it, anyway – hurt. And you make France hurt by getting them, well, jogging.

Confidence

France are on a bit of a high in the aftermath of the win against Scotland but, as I wrote earlier, that’s a game they really should have been winning regardless given Scotland’s injury troubles – in the pack in particular – and compounded on Scotland’s general weakness against big physical packs, even when they’re at full strength. A lot of the “hype” seems to be stemming from the successful blooding of their brand new Toulousain half-backs, Dupont (22) and Ntamack (19!) and I can understand why; getting a bonus point win with those two young lads at the controls after the two losses they endured in the opening rounds, even against the “C” ranked Scottish side they beat, will have felt significant.

After several thousand halfback combinations over the last few years – a scientific measure, you understand – those two lads have the potential to be a formidable combination for club and country but “potential” is mostly what they are right now, as talented as both lads are. Winning a handy one in Paris against a depleted Scotland is a different kettle of fish to plotting a win in Dublin against an Irish side that is close to what we’d describe as full strength going on last season’s performance.

Brunel has given France their best shot by sticking to the exact same matchday squad as he did against Scotland last time out.

Will it be enough to get them the cohesion they want here? 

Red Eye Report :: France (H)

I’ve decided to change this up slightly. I thought it would be cool to show where I rate the opposition (and Ireland) as a whole in a World Rugby context as first choice units and then, depending on the how far away both Ireland and the opposition are from what I would consider “full strength”, how the teams actually taking the field rate against each other.

S – Elite level
A – Good World Level
B – Average World Level
C – Poor World Level

Guinness Six Nations 2019 Round 4 :: Ireland v France

Full Strength Red Eye Rating: Ireland (S) / France (A-)
Teamsheet Adjusted Red Eye Rating: Ireland (S) / France (A-)
Current Six Nations Form Over Last 5 Games: Ireland (WWLWW) / France (LLLLW)

You Never Know Who’s Going To Turn Up™

A confident France is a dangerous France, even if that confidence would seem to be built on not much more than a handy performance against Scotland two weeks ago.

It’ll be up to Ireland to sow doubt in that confidence.

If you were watching my Red Eye prep stream earlier in the week, you’d have seen my re-watching of France vs Ireland from last year’s Six Nations. Yes, that one.

There was consistent space in and around the back of the French defensive lineout and resultant opportunities on subsequent phases. That opportunity is based on France’s tendency to compete heavily on opposition lineout ball. In last year’s game, France counter-jumped on all but three of Ireland’s 14 lineouts. They counter-jumped on every lineout outside or near the 22. Their pack selection then – as it is now – was designed to counter launch on almost every opposition throw and disrupt or steal the opposition’s attacking launch off the set piece, where France are particularly vulnerable. We know they’re vulnerable there, but they know they are too. This is the mini-game within this fixture – can Ireland get at Ntamack in the #10 channel or manipulate France’s desire to keep Ireland’s big ball carriers away from him into creating a linebreak elsewhere?

France are aware that selecting Ntamack has its upsides and downsides, but think the juice is worth the squeeze. The upside is his speed, agility, confidence and passing ability off both sides. The big downside is his physicality in defence off the set piece, the lineout in particular. An attacking lineout provides a unique ability to manipulate the opponent’s positioning based on what you’ve scouted ahead of time.

In 2018, France selected five of the pack that are due to start this game – three of them in the back five – and for broadly similar reasons. The main reason for that, I think, is the offensive and defensive lineout ability of Iturria, Vahaamahina and Lauret who all played in this fixture last season combined with relative newbie Felix Lambey who starts in the second row.

In 2018, as I’ve said, France challenged on every lineout Ireland had that wasn’t considered “close range” and they often launched two pods into the air to create a tonne of obstacles. This is a risk/reward type of thing in a lot of ways because two counter launches on a full lineout means you’ve got six men (usually) either in the air or lifting, which can create a maul opportunity for the attacking team and make reaching the first ruck after the lineout incredibly difficult if the launch is near the tail of the lineout.

On the other hand, this kind of aerial pressure puts a lot of stress on the hooker’s throwing shape and the timing of the attacking lift in a way that can provide real results. One of the counter launch pods can stay at the front and try to time the hooker’s throw if the opposition goes to the front. The other can track movement in the middle and tail and go off the front pod’s read.

Here are Lambey and Iturria combining against Scotland. Lambey guards the front and, when Scotland feint out at the front, he has time to go back to lift Iturria for a good steal.

If it goes well, you narrow the oppositions range off the lineout – essentially force them to throw conservatively to the front and near-middle – and protect that 10 channel.

France have selected four credible lineout targets in this game from an offensive perspective and three excellent counter-jumpers.

Sebastien Vahaamahina (39 caps) is your archetypical tighthead lock at 6’8″ and 126kg. He is capable of getting up in the lineout but he’s mainly used as a lifter and counter-mauler when it comes to defensive lineouts.

Arthur Iturria (9 caps) is in the #7 shirt but I’d expect him to act as a blindside flanker. At 6’6″ and around 108kg, he’s second-row sized (he started at #4 in last year’s game) and I’d describe him more as a loosehead lock than a flanker. Ireland will be looking to exploit his speed off the side of the scrum as an “openside” and target his reset after the lineout but he’s in here for his lineout ability and to give France three counter-jump options. He started at #7 against Scotland last time out and had a pretty soft run at it. He helped choke up the Scottish lineout and narrow the scope of their attack there, for the most part, and I’d rate him as a very solid counter-jumping option and they’ll use him in that role a lot.

Felix Lambey (5 caps) is similar to Iturria in a lot of ways when it comes to his build and role. He’s a classic loosehead lock going on his build and he’s a good, athletic counter-jumper. He’ll be a guy that France will likely station at the front.

Wenceslas Lauret (22 caps) is a blindside flanker in a similar vein to Peter O’Mahony in that he’s a wide(r) ball carrier but he’s also an incredibly talented counter-jumper, with really good speed and height into the air on the counter.

I wouldn’t describe him as a “half-lock” in the same way that I would O’Mahony because his maul defence and maul building isn’t great, but his counter-jumping and athletic ability at the top of the jump is outstanding.

On shortened lineouts, France will generally leave him in midfield to leave Vahaamahina, Lambey and Iturria as the primary challengers but that might change if O’Mahony is getting too much pace into the air.

Ultimately, France have selected three locks for this game and one extremely talented counter-jumping flanker. They’ve sacrificed some of their ball carrying in phase play to do it – Bastareud and Fickou will do a lot of heavy lifting to make up for it – but they need to ensure that Ireland don’t get access to the #10 channel.

Ireland’s first lineout of 2018 will show us why.

Last year, France had a different hype-beast at #10 – Matthieu Jalibert – but an identical problem in the #10 channel off the set piece.

Once Ireland got the ball down from the tail inside the first minute, France were in a world of trouble. Let’s have a look at how it played out.

The French’s counter-jump at the tail had left a choke point at the back of the lineout that Ireland were able to exploit. Once the ball was won, three of France’s tight five were trying to make up ground on the break.

This is not ideal for France.

In a way, this creates a backs on backs isolation for Ireland to work with and, when one of your lightest backs (in this 2018 instance it was Jalibert, and it’ll be Ntamack this weekend) is defending a critical area, that creates problems.

You can’t leave the #10 isolated or the likes of Bundee Aki will run him over or stamp a few marks on his tackle card and every outside back only has so many of those in a game. So, to compensate, you stack a heavy midfielder near him to protect the channel and the player. To compensate for that, you have to stick your other midfielder closer to him because you can’t leave that much lateral space to cover in centre-field. Then, to compensate for that, your fullback and winger have a world of space to cover and decisions to make. With the right kind of movement to sit down the trio of #10 and midfielders, you can generate an isolation on the outside edge. That’s what Ireland did here.

Sexton sat down Guirado – shooting off the back of the lineout – Henshaw faked a step inside at Jalibert to sit down Lamerat and Kearney shot into Chavancy to pin him in place while trying to obstruct Lamerat’s scramble.

That released Aki to attack Vakatawa with Stockdale on his shoulder.

The need to protect Jalibert created a means for Ireland to pin and then get outside the majority of the French team. Jalibert scrambled well in this instance, but the damage was done on the initial break essentially won Ireland a penalty to go 3-0 up.

All these problems are still present in France’s in-field lineout defence one year later.

It’s more or less why they’ve gone for three second-rows in their starting pack and forgoed the ball-carrying of Yacouba Camara, who started for them against England, in favour of what Lauret gives them in the lineout. They still have Picamoles, yes, and Guirado is well able to carry ball for them but outside of Big Louis Picamoles, I can’t really point to that many dynamic heavy ball carriers in this French pack. Ultimately, Brunel seems to have decided that if he can limit Ireland’s attack off the lineout and protect Ntamack, France have an incrementally greater chance of getting a win.

If France allow Ireland to get at Ntamack, it creates a world of problems for them. Look at this example with Camille Lopez at #10 for an example;

Mako Vunipola swats Lopez away and forces Guirado to tackle – but France’s back row have already gone to the openside. That isolated five of France’s heaviest forwards around the ruck and created a huge 20m gap for England to attack on the reverse.

If England had gone for a reverse off this lineout – like this for example;

They could have got a look at attacking that slow French blindside defence. I’d expect Ireland to go at that here.

Attack The Protectors

Ultimately, Ntamack will be well protected but we don’t beat France by trying to run him over – although we’ll try that too, believe me – we’ll beat France by targeting the men they will arrange around him as protection.

Against Scotland, France had a slightly different alignment than the previous weeks when it came to their infield defence on anything less than a shortened lineout.

Picamoles lined up on Ntamack’s inside shoulder and Bastareud stood on his outside shoulder. Scotland were looking to attack the space created by Huget’s yellow card but couldn’t get the accuracy from Johnson to sit down the French infield defence. The pass to Griggs is slightly behind him so he has to check his run slightly.

You can see it slowing his run and giving Ntamack a chance to reset. Griggs still gets a strong fend on the flyhalf but then he runs into Bastareud and it’s all over for him. Forget about Ntamack though – look at that space between Picamoles, Ntamack and Bastareud on the initial run-up.

Fickou has to sit back with Bastareud so as not to create a complete hinge in the lineout defence but his lack of speed on this chase creates a door for Ireland to attack. If Bastareud is coming to the line late, then he can be attacked on the loop.

If Scotland fed Strauss here, he could zone in on Ntamack, which would have sat down the flyhalf, drawn Bastareud in and then, with a pop pass to the second layer runner, possibly released Horne from the second layer, who in turn could have released Grigg (gold line) for a break.

All possibilities, of course, but an example of how Ireland could target Ntamack’s protectors in a similarly shortened lineout.

When it’s a full lineout, Picamoles will hang back in a tail gunner position while Guirado takes a position in the 5m channel.

The key man here is Huget, though. Watch the way he zones in on Ntamack’s channel to cover the potential linebreak.

If Picamoles and Lauret make the ruck point, does that mean that Dupont (#9) and heavy tight five forwards are guarding the blindside? There’s potential to attack through the boot there or hit a move like the try that Stockdale scored against the All Blacks last November.

Scotland did keep after the six-man alignment though. What is it about getting Picamoles on Ntamack’s inside shoulder that they wanted? The inside switch to catch the space on Picamoles’ inside shoulder is an option, given that it’s usually Bamba and Guirado that are closing the door there if Lauret has challenged in the air at the tail. That’ll be one for Murray or Earls.

I think the real opportunity is in overloading Bastareud and Picamoles on a six-man alignment is the key.

We know that Picamoles is relatively quick but if he’s defending Ntamack’s inside shoulder then our midfield forward has to be on Bastareud’s channel with Aki angling on Ntamack.

Scotland managed similar on a six-man lineout in the second half of the last round after they got good ball to the tail. Throwing to the tail is important, as this means that Bamba and Guirado have to believe that a maul might form there and that will slow them, creating extra space for Picamoles to defend. This will keep him in two minds between protecting Ntamack and wondering about an attack on his inside shoulder.

Ntamack won’t want to stray too far from Picamoles, and that, in turn, will draw in Bastareud, who’ll be running a step or two behind.

We can attack this.

Scotland sit down Bastareud twice in this sequence.

The first is when Strauss angles onto Bastareud’s line, keeping Bastareud’s lateral spacing close to Ntamack. Why? This means that Bastareud has to make up lateral ground while trying to accelerate – a weakness of his.

That creates the space to attack between Bastareud and Fickou or between Fickou and Huget, depending on who goes where for France in the moment.

Note that Dupont is essentially defending on Huget’s wing too – which means big kicking space to target behind the lineout itself.

Watch Bastareud’s movements when I slow it down.

Look at how his double stop holds Fickou and Huget for a 3-2 isolation. That’s exactly where I’d want Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls attacking. Look for this one in the second half around 50 something minutes, when France are tiring but haven’t brought on their forward replacements yet.

We will use Ntamack as an anchor to weigh down the French infield defence.

I can’t wait to watch this one.