Another group of French foot soldiers making good use of time and space

Mon, Nov 19, 2012, 00:00

FRENCH NOTES:It’s looking good in the early days of the new Saint-André French empire

‘Strategy is the science of the use of space and time. Resoundingly, I am less sparing of space than time. Space can be won back. Lost time? Never.”

– Napoleon

Napoleon’s words resound down the centuries. Here, the great strategist is talking about battle with the Grande Army, but his concepts of space and time are also the core of rugby strategy.

In rugby the purpose of team attack is to create “space and time” for the ball carrier. For every ying there is a yang, and in rugby the reason to exist for team defence is to take away time and space from the attack.

It is interesting to remember that Napoleon died in exile on Saint Helena only two years before William Webb Ellis picked up the soccer ball at the Rugby School and ran.

The structures of rugby today are derived from the military theories of the Napoleonic era.

Two opposing armies facing each other in parallel lines. Frontal assault the only means of engagement. Victory goes to the army that can most successfully invade the opposition’s territory by breaking through the other teams line.

Napoleon’s staggering military success was based on his ability to move his vast army, with astonishing speed over great distances.

He got to the enemy fast, denying them time for preparation. By getting there first, he chose the terrain for the battle. The ground he chose would ideally hamper his enemy’s movements, therefore denying them space. Love him or loath him, his military genius is undeniable.

The French rugby coaches have taken a leaf from Napoleons battle plans. It has taken Philippe Saint-André a season to settle in, now he has established a new pragmatism in the French tactical awareness. Currently France are playing the most tactical game of all the international teams, with the exception of the New Zealanders.

Last week in Paris, France sprung a trap on the gold invaders that the emperor himself would have been proud of. The French defence attacked the Wallaby ball carriers with passion. They gang tackled offensively. The Wallaby attack was denied space and time so they could not get the ball to the flanks where they felt they had an advantage over the French.

It did not end with the D. France did not kick for touch, rather they kept the ball on the field of play forcing extra scrums – the Australians’ weakness. They picked apart the Wallaby defence around the scrum base and, with some judicial flanker on flanker holding, put Louis Picamoles over untouched.

The French XV have returned to their roots and readopted the traditional Adidas jerseys that they wore in their pomp, in the ’70s and ’80s. Les Bleus have also attempted to return to the greatness of their off loading and counter attacking game of the same era.

Venus de Milo

Freddie Michalak’s marvellous back foot side step in setting up Wesley Fofanas counter-attack try against Australia left Kurtley Beale impersonating the Venus de Milo. Armless in the tackle. Michalak’s masterful performances on his return to the national side, after a spell with the Sharks in Super rugby, means the ‘Flaky Freddy’ tag is now unjust.

He is a mature international player at the peak of his powers, making excellent decisions in both attack and defence.

The French have worked to a set plan to increase the number of turnovers at the tackle. They counter ruck every time they have more defenders than attackers and force turnovers. In basketball this moment of turn over of possession is called transition. It is the time of greatest vulnerability for the team that loses possession, as their defence is not organised.

The French use a highly effective transition system. Like all good plans it is simple. They pass the ball three times before going forward. The ball is transferred away from the point of turnover and put into the space where there are no defenders. They create time and space for the ball carrier to attack.

The power running forwards are punching their shoulders through the defensive line, then getting support runners on their shoulders, while looking for the off load. The first 30 minutes of attack against Argentina was the best attack I have watched this season. It was skilful, intelligent and hugely entertaining.

The athleticism of their backrow – Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Fulgence Ouedraogo – is creating havoc in the defence. Against the Pumas the interchange of passing in the forwards was wonderful for rugby. Anything that stops defensive systems dominating is good for the game.

The injury to Thierry Dusautoir has, by default, created a leader in Pascal Pape. His standard of play has jumped as he has risen to the honour of leading his country. Locks create the power for the team.

His power running and clearing out has been the bedrock of the French going forward. It is still early days in this French Empire, but once again Europe lays at their feet. If they are like Bonaparte, and dream of dominance, they have the ability to kill off opposition time and space.

History has proven that when the French do this well, they are a force that is all but irresistible.

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