Saturday, March 15, 2014

The final hurdle

A look ahead to this weekend’s top action by Fergal Nolan aka @IrishRugbyBlog…

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With 3 teams left for the crown, all eyes will be on Paris come 5pm. Can England spring a monstrous points haul over Italy? Can Ireland take a French side on home soil – a feat accomplished just once in 42 years? Tout sera révélé.

If you could write a fairy tale ending then this was it. Ireland trounced Italy and one man was at the centre of it all. Brian O’ Driscoll. In my weekend preview I earmarked him for a try. He did everything but score. Directly set up 2 tries and indirectly another. His work-rate was fantastic. His passion sublime. He never fails to deliver and I feel this weekend will be the same.

The first 40mins of the Italian game didn’t yield nice viewing. Although, like I noted before, we would pull away in the second half. How many times have we heard “We wore them down as the game progressed”? This was the underlying success of the game. Schmidt has his players holding possession (75%) and wore the Italians down. After a Six Nations record 208 tackles, they were well and truly worn down. They failed to score a single point in second half. We had the luxury of subbing players and unloading our bench. Strength and depth is abundance in this team, it will stand to us in the cup games.

Looking to the game this weekend, it is a major task. My confidence is off putting. Confident going to Stade de France…perhaps I should look at the statistics!! In the last 12 years France have only lost 3 home games in the six nations. If we can overcome that, how about this – we have won once there in 42 years. 42 years. These figures are daunting, so let’s boost our enthusiasm. In the last two years, we have drew with Les Bleus, both in Dublin and in Paris. In 2009 we beat them at home. In 2000 O’Driscoll stepped onto the scene. That day he scored a hat-trick and gave Ireland our first win since 1972. Tomorrow will be his last for Ireland, where the magic all began. That’s why I’m hopeful.

This is why I’m confident. France are not the side they used to be. They have the players, no doubt about that. What they don’t have is discipline. They lack structure. Individual players fail to show leadership and passion on the park. They have no game management. Phillipe Saint-Andre has chopped and changed the team from day one. By making these changes, the squad don’t have time to gel, and ultimately do not fully trust each other.

To sum it up, it’s the opposite of the Ireland team. We have conceded just 27 penalties in this tournament, France 36. Good discipline. We haven’t received any cards, France have one red and three yellow against them. Passion is brought to the pitch by every Irish player. I haven’t seen much by the French players, albeit moments of genius by their back-line. With so many leaders and with new ones evolving, the decision making of the men in green feeds into their game management. In contrast to the French team, Schmidt has retained the same starting 15 from day one, bar one or two injuries. They understand each other and therefore trust each other.

Like the Italian game, I believe Ireland will hold onto possession as much as possible. They have done so very successfully in the previous games. We will build on the phases and hope to create space for our back-line. If this proves ineffective, then retaining possession will be key as I believe we can gather penalties as the French get impatient.

Our kicking game must be accurate. We do not want the French back-line running at us, nor do we want them playing the kick and chase game. These are their biggest threats, and my greatest worry. If they create space they are extremely dangerous. I believe they will target Rob Kearney. From the two tries we have conceded, Kearney missed both tackles on the running man. Dulin and Huget are extremely fast paced with ball in hand. There will be some crucial match ups, I just hope Kearney wins those battles and comes out on top.

Looking at the set piece, I can envisage Ireland being dominant in the scrum. From our own scrums won, we have lost 2. France have lost 6, although Picamoles back in the pack is a boost. As the game progresses, utilisation of the bench will be important. The replacements in McGrath, Moore, Cronin, Henderson and Murphy provide optimism in the scrummage.

From the Schmidt era we have seen the line out and rolling maul being very effective. I can see us targeting their line out and being effective in controlling our own. France have had 39 line outs and lost 12. That’s a success rate of 69%. Ireland have had 57, lost 4. A success rate of 93%. If we don’t target this area I will be shocked. Clean ball from a stolen line out would provide a great attacking threat. Inside the French 22, a successful line out should see the driving maul being utilised. If Ireland can draw the French players in, we could create a try scoring opportunity like the final moments of the Welsh game.

Our partnership of O’ Driscoll and Darcy in the centre is a contrast to Basteraud and Fickou. While one duo fully trust, and understand each other, the other lacks that partnership. Like any relationship to be effective, communication is key. Defensively, Ireland have the upper hand here.

Sexton playing his rugby in France is very positive for this decider. He plays amongst these players. He understands their game. Scoring two tries v Italy mirrored his fantastic performance. If a certain 13 wasn’t retiring then it was his Man of the Match. Sexton is crucial in the management of the game. If his kicking is up to his standard then I have no fears.

We have conceded just 29 points in this tournament. France have conceded 78. With two tries conceded and France seven, the numbers show how well organised and disciplined this Irish squad are. In total, there have been 710 passes by the men in green. 485 by our French counterparts. These points mirror the management of the Irish coaching team – holding ball and building phases.

The French are like a puzzle with no instructions. If they can fit the pieces together they can really turn it on. If we mirror our performances to date and kick intelligently the we have a great chance.

We can turn their weapons against them. We should bring our intensity game and hit the ground running (like against the All Blacks). Get a lead at half time and the French crowd will turn against the team. Get under the players’ skin in the hope to yield penalties, and ultimately, points on the scoreboard. If things go horribly wrong for France, the guillotine will drop on French rugby and Saint-Andre….d’être libéré.

As I have outlined it won’t be easy. The statistics against us are daunting but the statistics of the tournament so far are extremely encouraging. If any side can win, it’s this one.

With the magical Brian O’ Driscoll signing out for one last time, fair tales can come through. Ireland by 6 plus.

Fergal is on twitter as @IrishRugbyBlog


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019