The Red Eye :: France (a)

Being favourites against France in Paris is a weird place to be for Irish rugby fans.

Paris has been the site of many an arse-kicking for Ireland over the years with February 2016 being the most recent example. But 2016 was – wait for it – two years ago and in that time, Ireland have built depth upon depth while the French have stagnated, chopped, changed and generally made being “France” look very difficult, in a rugby context.

Since last season’s third-place Six Nations finish, France have been on a six-game winless skid, with the only respite from Ls being a big fat D(raw) against Japan.

That difficulty has increased in the last few months as Guy Noves was given the road in a fairly unceremonious dumping in late December 2017. New coach Jacques Brunel has had little over a month to prepare his squad for this years Six Nations as well dealing with a number of injuries to important players. No time to prepare, coaching chaos, no win in six and a bucket of injuries?

Compare that to Ireland’s run-up up to this game, and you’ll get an idea why we’re favourites in Paris. It isn’t a familiar feeling but if this group of players is to live up to the reputation that they’ve begun to earn, then it has to be a win this weekend. Ask yourself, What Would The All Blacks Do in this scenario and you’ll get an idea of what our standard has to be here. Teams who want to be taken seriously as possible World Cup winners in 2019 win this game 19 times out of 20.

So how are we going to do it?

Let’s have a look at the teams;

Ireland

Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (C), Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Iain Henderson; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, John Ryan, Devin Toner, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery, Fergus McFadden.

France

Geoffrey Palis; Teddy Thomas, Remi Lamerat, Henry Chavancy, Virimi Vakatawa, Matthieu Jalibert, Maxime Machenaud; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (C), Rabah Slimani, Arthur Iturria, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Kevin Gourdon

Replacements: Adrien Pelissie, Dany Priso, Cedate Gomes Sa, Paul Gabrillagues, Marco Tauleigne, Antoine Dupont, Anthony Belleau, Benjamin Fall.

Ireland have lined out pretty much as I expected bar three changes (one injury related).

As far as France as concerned, there’s an awful lot of changes to what I would consider their first choice 23 but even then, I’m not sure anyone in France knows what their first choice matchday squad is. There’s no Picamoles, no Huget, no Spedding, no Bastareud, no Danty, no Bonneval, no Macalou, no Maestri, no Chat, no Parra – and the list goes on. Some aren’t fit, others aren’t picked for one reason or another but it makes analyzing this French side a tricky operation.

Most of this tight five started in the 18-38 defeat to New Zealand on the 11th of November 2017. Iturria is the only change to the starters in that game, with Gabrillagues drops to the bench. Gourdon also started in that game but plays at #8 here alongside Camara and Lauret.

This is probably the most mobile back five that France have picked in some time. Iturria, Camara, Lauret and Gourdon are far from what we’ve come to expect from France over the last few years – they’re all light, quick around the field and suited for playing in the wider spaces. This is a French pack that is set up to play, especially when you look at the electric young talent they’ve picked at 10. We’re going to see France try to “Jouer, Jouer” here because – and this is strange to say – the pack they’ve picked is not one that I think has anything for Ireland in the tight exchanges.

Vahaamahina is an obvious outlier in the size department (and he’ll scrummage on the tighthead side behind Slimani) but this is a French pack that I really feel we can bully in the tight, especially in the scrum. Look for Furlong (with James Ryan behind him) to surge into the French loosehead side on almost every exchange. It might be bullish but I really don’t think that Poirot, Guirado and Iturria have the grunt to handle those two in the scrum.

Ireland beating up France in the tight? In Paris? There’s no reason why it can’t happen.

Mapping The Opposition

Trying to analyze this French selection is a difficult proposition. They haven’t played with each other as a collective, which is a massive disadvantage for them. There are so many new combinations (and guys with under 15 caps) that specifically analyzing this French side is pretty pointless. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t look at what they might do. I think, in a lot of ways, this French side will resemble a combination of the Springbok/Puma teams that Ireland played in November of last year in how they will approach the game.

That gives Ireland some guidance as to what might work in this game.

Challenge Perceptions

The team that Brunel has selected looks reactive in nature. That is to say, he’s picked a team that will look to shore up any bad matchups against the way Ireland currently play. Everything from the mobile guys he’s picked in the back-row to cover Ireland’s wider handling to the selection of Geoffrey Palis at fullback two weeks after his excellent handling of Conor Murray’s box kicking in Thomond Park screams “we have to stop Ireland”.

That’s easier said than done these days.

In previous seasons, the accusation of “one out” carrying could be levelled at Ireland’s approach to attack with the ball in hand. It wasn’t correct, but the perception seems to be the reality in cases like this but I think it came from Ireland’s preference to setting up a multiphase punch with a good channel one carry combined with quick ball on the recycle. If they get both of those things, they’ll move to the next phase but if they don’t, they’ll go back to get the mix of gain line and quick ball that they like to build their movements off.

Against South Africa and Argentina, Ireland utilized these “starter carries” quite a bit to launch more expansive movements.

Here’s a good example;

Rory Best’s carry didn’t make huge metres but it narrowed the Argentinian heavy defence and, crucially, he got the ball back to Murray quickly. That made the gaps appear in the wider channels for Sexton to target with his usual excellent passing, assisted by an excellent Stander decoy line.

Here’s an example of that movement against South Africa;

A short set up carry with quick ball and then a wider pattern on the ball thereafter from Sexton to Stander. Sexton’s line narrows the wider defence to give Stander a pocket of space to attack.

But Ireland mixed this traditional starter play with wider passing movements that went against what might be considered our “typical” style.

Look at this example;

Healy to Stander, Stander to Sexton and then out. The target was getting Aki into a one on one with South Africa’s winger here but Best’s line spoiled it. You can see the intention to move the ball in a way that would be considered atypical for Ireland.

This kind of work will be hugely effective against France but only if we hold onto the ball for large periods. France will be concerned with the dynamism of our primary ball carriers – Healy, Stander and Henderson – and given their relative lack of defensive beef in the pack, I think they’ll be predisposed to doubling up their mobile defenders in tight channels to combat them.

Remember, if tight forwards get hit on a quick ball carry, they’ll be left exposed in the same spot the third phase. Let’s assume that the 1-4 here is Poirot, Guirado, Slimani and Vahaamahina.

France don’t want these four players getting isolated on phase ball because Ireland have the ability to catch them in midfield two phases later.

That will mean that France are likely to keep a narrow aspect on their defence, despite the mobility of their pack. That leaves some bad matchups for them outside the fringe areas and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Ireland duplicating that Sexton/Stander movement I showed earlier on a few occasions to soften up their back-row.

But we’ve also added a pretty good wide-wide attack pattern that I think we’ll use to target the French front four. We saw a good example of that against Argentina in November and it’s characterised by a micro version of a “super load”.

Pay close attention to this starter movement used inside the first minute and in a spot that Ireland usually kick from;

This is not a “usual” Irish play in this position. The most interesting aspect of it Best, Stockdale and O’Brien creeping onto the openside after the starter ruck but that’s closely followed in the “hmmm, interesting” stakes by Kearney’s support line in the backfield.

If we run it on;

Kearney takes the ball at the most dangerous part of this movement – the “set” ruck. The set ruck is the ruck in a planned sequence that will have the lowest amount of cleaning support so is the most likely to get turned over. Kearney does excellently here and Adam Byrne is a lucky lad that he managed to finish his cleanout because he spoiled Ryan’s angle to the breakdown.

Ireland get the ball back and what they do after is exactly the kind of movement that I think will hurt this French selection again and again.

This has all the hallmarks of a Schmidt pattern – multiple options at all times. Farrell’s role as the last passer to the wide pod of O’Brien, Best and Stockdale leave him in a perfect spot to clean out the ball.

Look at the way that Stander narrows the Argentinian cover before moving the ball onto Sexton;

That pod of three forwards with Sexton behind was a hugely effective movement for Ireland in the November Series and they’ll use the same system against France.

Henderson’s position alongside Stander means that Argentina have to stay narrow, Furlong and Healy’s decoy line narrows them further (and even stops their #13 from flowing into space) and when the ball leaves Aki’s hands, there is space there for Ireland to attack.

A few phases later in this sequence, we hit the other side of the pitch through Kearney for a line break.

If we can duplicate this kind of pattern against France, we could (a) tire out their front four as they try to avoid getting isolated on reverse patterns and (b) overload a team with a lot of new combinations with some complex wide-wide movements.

If our handling is up to par, we have the cohesion and live carrying threats to mess with France’s preconceived idea of how we’re going to play.

Target The Boy

Teams target opposition fly halves. I know, it’s a revelation. You shouldn’t be too surprised by this. If you can rattle the opposition flyhalf, you take away the main ball playing link between their forwards and backs. Remember – fly half mistakes are more expensive then mistakes by any other player on the field. Brunel’s decision to play Matthieu Jalibert in this game makes a fairly tantalizing target for Ireland to attack.

I wouldn’t expect to see the young lad showing up in the same defensive channels as Sexton does for Ireland – he’s 5’11” and 12 stone, he’d be killed. France will cycle him into the backfield any chance they get on multiphase ball but scrum defence is another thing.

Like I covered in The GIF Room :: Hurt Sanchez, Ireland are really good at targeting a physically weak 10 and/or attacking the space others leave when they try to protect him – especially off attacking scrums.

Test rugby is a cruel arena and putting a lad like Jalibert in against the likes of Stander, Aki, Henshaw and Stockdale has the potential to cause real issues for France at the scrum and not just in a “good god that 19-year-old boy just got flattened by Bundee Aki” kind of way.

See this example of what I mean;

CJ Stander takes a massive arcing run off the scrum to attack the 10 channel which draws a tackle from Kolisi to bail out Jantjies from a terrible matchup against Stander on the run; in the French game, this will probably be Camara bailing out Jalibert.

You can see Bundee and Peter O’Mahony doing a bit of a number on Jantjies when he gets tied up in the tackle. Little hits like this are much more common than the David vs Goliath scenario most are envisioning but they are really effective for putting manners on a young 10.

But the real benefit to this action hasn’t been seen yet – look at what happens on this play.

South Africa’s desire to flood the 10 channel to support the “weak link” means that their four slowest players have been trapped on the outside edge of the pattern – exactly the alignment that Ireland will look to expose in France this weekend.

It’s not just about running over the 10 – it’s about attacking the protection that he has to receive off setpiece. I’d expect to see most of Ireland’s real attacking IQ go into attacking France off the scrum from all over the pitch. That goes for the lineout too but I’m already at 2200 words here.

Ireland should win this game comfortably enough and, if they attack France correctly, have the potential to blow them away early.

The days of the underdog should be long over. If Ireland are to Slam this Six Nations like they should, then this version of France has to be ruthlessly put away.