Ireland will need all 23 to take down France's mobile monsters
Taking a slight break from the outhalf debate and Frédéric Michalak’s carpet-bombing I found myself walking the beautiful gardens of Ashford Castle last Sunday. I wondered who should start at 10 for both teams before the four-second rule kicked into my mind, or more accurately one giant in the middle of the French backrow, Louis Picamoles.
The Picamoles four-second rule arises when he’s swamped violently within a triple-tackle; motoring towards the ground or touch he can suspend time for four seconds to survey his periphery and offload at ease.
Crucially, his team-mates are equally aware of this skill and run lines of support long considered dead by other players.
This is extremely dangerous as Picamoles is as likely to break the tackle and keep trucking on as he is to look dead and buried before a most majestic offload unlocks the green defence, with Maxime Medard appearing from nowhere.
It has been very difficult to judge France until they arrived in Twickenham. For those fooled by the Six Nations table a French team with Morgan Parra bought cohesion allied to ability in the physical English environment, which is a deeply distressing sight. They not only soaked up the hits but could review the situation mid-hit, getting their hands free, with Picamoles supreme. They hunted further, where Picamoles et al dump-tackled with ease. This is far removed from spear-tackling but to see English athletes being lifted and walked backwards in contact was frightening.
Ireland couldn’t cope with that English physicality so it’ll be crucial we dictate the game plan to avoid such encounters. Ireland should play no rugby in their own half and must be physical but extremely patient in finding field position.
Our lineout maul must be utilised and so too our bench. Mike Ross will be exhausted, so too Mike McCarthy in supporting him. Ireland’s tactics for managing the French in the last 20 minutes must have all 15 Irish players furiously rowing at full stroke across the 80-minute line, having used the full bench.
I’m delighted to see with drip-feeding Stephen Archer’s name over the season the call-up has arrived; be warned, he’s getting there so be patient with him.
France have a beautiful blend of monsters and mobility, with James Bond villains throughout, most notably their second row where Yoann Maestri, standing at 6ft 7in and 17st 8lb, is a beast.
He’s hardly a springing salmon but packing down behind tighthead Nicolas Mas, he is going to channel serious grunt through to Cian Healy. Mas has been there for all the big French wins and is supreme in scrum and tackling. What a challenge awaits Healy. Never before does the Irish bench have more value than when facing a French front five (and their bench) tomorrow.
Blindside Yannick Nyanga complements Maestri and will provide nightmares in the air for Ireland’s hookers.
Ross’s performance benchmarked to England’s Dan Cole will bring the Lions starting shirt into focus. Thomas Domingo murdered Cole at times, and often with only seven scrummaging.
Eight-man scrums from Ireland, especially early on, will be essential, with no swan-necking from the Irish wing forwards. They must scrum like never before and for McCarthy, expect nothing but scrum support for Ross. If he manages this and the very odd carry he’ll be doing extremely well.
Communication is a key element to any battle on the park, where the subtleties of influencing are honed over years. Typically, the leader chips away at the referee to gain those 50-50 calls. Most captains arrive into this position after years of captaining at various levels.
I was fascinated to read Jamie Heaslip this week – “When you come off the field as a player you analyse your own game, but as a captain you feel more responsible for the team” – as most natural leaders, captain or not, will be consumed by the team performance.
Learning his trade
Heaslip is learning this trade, which will take time. Tomorrow, however, major communication contributions must come from Ross and Conor Murray.
How Heaslip manages Australian Steve Walsh will be most interesting but better yet will the interaction between Walsh, Ross and Murray. Murray, in particular, must fully understand his role in protecting Ross. For this he requires knowledge on all aspects of Ross’s intentions to constantly feed and influence Walsh’s decisions. I will be amazed if Ross plays over 70 minutes as it is not possible to be effective and to survive.
What’s different between Mathieu Bastareaud, Florian Fritz and Wesley Fofana, as all three will see play in midfield? I would not like to tackle them but for different reasons. Bastareaud, off the bench, is not the best distributer and struggles in contact to manage possession but what a battering ram to have when all you have is four seconds!
Finally, best wishes to Fiona Coghlan and her team against the French in Ashbourne RFC tonight, a cracking lady deserving of a Grand Slam.
PS. Regarding Declan Kidney’s big decisions these past few weeks I trust that when his time comes the IRFU afford him more dignity in his exit than he displayed on Brian O’Driscoll’s captaincy and Ronan O’Gara’s career. The point isn’t “what’s best for the team” but how the decision is handled. O’Driscoll and O’Gara, no more than Kidney, deserve the utmost respect, which was not how it appeared. Pre the New Zealand tour was a prime time to plan both decisions and how best to choreograph the outcome. Instead both looked rushed and it was distasteful.