Gordon D’Arcy: France can expect unexpected from Ireland

Joe Schmidt’s side have been letting the blinds rise and are ready to play a big hand

O’Connell, Sexton and Henshaw talk about traditions and characters in the Ireland rugby team dressing room. Video: 3

 

Being a recently retired player I know how everyone in the Ireland squad will be feeling. As Sunday comes closer public fears might be growing about France but not the lads.

They are thinking: ‘this is brilliant. This is why we get out of bed. This is why we train. All that mind-numbing mental preparation just to have half a percentage over our opponents feels worth it. This is why we have shoulder or knee surgery, this is why we go through all that horrible rehab and those lonely hours in the dead zone. For this’.

It’s an unbelievable feeling, building up to a World Cup game of such magnitude.

I will hold the memory of that week before beating Australia in Auckland four years ago with me until my dying day. We almost didn’t know how to deal with ourselves, such was the desire to get out there.

Now, with that experience spread across so many in the squad, they will be thinking, ‘okay, we can win this game, we can top this group, we can go further but we must ensure we are absolutely pumped come 4.45pm on Sunday’.

So they will be.

I don’t play poker much but I’ve a real sense that Ireland have been letting the blinds rise and rise without so much as a twitch. We have been a very predictable rugby team for some time now.

This is all our opponents are seeing; it’s from this evidence that they are learning tell-tale signs to know when Ireland are about to play a big hand. And then we do the complete opposite.

That I feel is the ultimate bluff by Joe Schmidt and Johnny Sexton.

There is value in glancing back to Twickenham before moving on to Ireland versus France as it highlights the magic trick unfurled by Michael Cheika’s Wallabies.

Planned move

Like all magic, Bernard Foley’s intriguing second try happened because English focus was trained elsewhere and some rapid sleight of hand made it seem other worldly. It was definitely a planned move designed to isolate the far side ruck defender, which in that case was Joe Launchbury.

It came from forward momentum too. Australia won their lineout 30 metres out and David Pocock carried infield, right to left. Another carry around the corner by Rob Simmons gave the English a familiar picture so they stacked their defence on the shorter left side. That’s where their pre-game analysis told them Australia would be going next.

A trend at the moment is for forwards to get the ball off the nine and play it out the back to the ten. That second line being the real running threat. England constantly do it and should have beaten Wales after creating a try for Jonny May off their second wave’s angled assault.

But Australia flipped this form of attack on its head. Go to 34.25 on the clock, when Will Genia picks up the ball, there are three Australian forwards fixing seven English defenders with Foley and Kurtley Beale out the back.

But the two Waratahs, and that’s important, change the point of attack at the last possible millisecond which forces all the Englishmen to turn backwards and go behind the ruck. Which leaves them stranded.

Launchbury can’t get back through the ruck (and Kane Douglas) so he’s left a hole for Beale.

This creates two two-on-one scenarios. The first on Ben Youngs (Foley inside to Beale), the second on Mike Brown after Beale flies past Launchbury and returns the favour to Foley.

Brilliant poker-faced rugby.

Show a team a play enough times until someone over folds. If even one of those England defenders, Chris Robshaw, had stayed on the other side of the ruck with Launchbury they could have defended it.

Second Captains

At 17-3 that was the game’s major hand played.

That’s rugby. Get someone to bet against you when they think you have nothing then stick them with a flush. Use their hours of painstaking analysis against them.

Exceptionally enjoyable

Ireland beat Italy, again, without showing their hand, which I think is important. Nothing concerned me from my day out at Olympic Park or when I looked at the game again at home. I felt we were going to win even if we went behind.

It was my first time going to a game as a fan. It was exceptionally enjoyable because I am in a good place mentally. The players who are there are should be there.

I did find the Jared Payne criticism so odd after Romania that I looked up the World Cup stats, as I thought he had carried a lot of ball, and sure enough he was in the top metres after contact and the number of carries after two games. The support for Jared is no surprise, he’s a real players’ player.

Anyway, France. I always loved playing them. That’s still the Irish mentality.

One of the nicest things that ever happened to me was a gift I received the day after we beat them in 2009. Joanne Byrne had got the picture of my try celebration, got it printed, framed with a note saying: ‘Congratulations, welcome back’.

It’s the only rugby picture I have in my house. Big, dumb happy head on me.

Welcome back from the dead zone after a year-long injury. Winning the Grand Slam a few weeks later was the pinnacle but this will always stay with me because it seemed like I was finished. What was very nearly taken away was given back. Not many people get that feeling in life, never mind sport. I definitely enjoyed my rugby from there on out.

It happened against Italy during the 2008 Six Nations. Just a swinging arm tackle. I’ve done it loads of times before and since but this time I shattered my right arm like glass. Broken in eight places. I do have a theory on how it happened though. I had played three-and- a-half seasons of rugby without a break. Every minute of almost every game.

Everyone is talking about the Welsh boys and how unlucky they are with joint injuries. Now, this is just my opinion having played the game for my entire adolescent and adult life, it is not backed up by science; but I believe your body can only take so much punishment and for a certain amount of time before breaking down.

The Welsh, in preparation for this World Cup, and Warren Gatland has said it, pushed their players to breaking point. Well, now they are breaking. Losing 16 per cent of their starting XV can’t be a coincidence. If it is then they are truly cursed.

We first went to Spala in Poland when Gatty was Ireland coach and Eddie O’Sullivan kept it going for a while. It’s gruelling, hard work but the problem with it was the horrific mental punishment as well.

Usually you can take one or the other – physical pain then mentally stretching yourself on the field – but that isolated sports centre in a forest was a combination of both.

Wales say they are seeing the benefits but at what cost?

When I was at my most fatigued I went into an innocuous tackle, did what I always did, nothing dramatic, yet needed three operations and two bone grafts before, beyond all hope, it began to knit back together.

In those dark months I realised the value of having a genuine friend as your rugby agent. Fintan Drury has always been someone I trust, a confidant. We sat down and Fintan simply said “If the surgeon says he is retiring you, what’s the worst that can happen?” “I’ll never play rugby again. “Okay, and then?”

“ Eh, I’ll go back to college.”

“‘Great, and then...”

We formulated a plan for the rest of my life. I instantly felt better, stronger. Maybe it was one of the reasons my arm healed.

Shattered arm

My first game back was against Ulster. Every returning injured player will tell you there is a moment when they do something without thinking about the injury and realise it is healed.

My arm was tested on Stephen Ferris. I was on the wing and Fez got up a head of steam so I ran in, chopped him down and got straight on the ball. Hopped up and realised I was not in pain after tackling Stephen Ferris with a previously shattered arm.

I remember ringing Deccie Kidney to ask for one more game, for Lansdowne, before the French match and he said no problem, on one condition: you are only out there to practice playing 12. I don’t want to read the match report about how you were carrying balls left, right and centre.

I got on against France at Croke Park on the hour mark. Within five minutes I stepped into first receiver, leaned to go outside Florian Fritz but stepped inside and twisted out of Thierry Dusautoir’s tackle before carrying Benjamin Kayser over the line with the old leg drive.

It was a life changing experience. The lads mobbed me because they understood what their team-mate had been through, where he had to climb from to wear a green jersey again.

Yeah, I always liked playing France. My first Six Nations game was in Paris in 2004. Before walking out at Stade de France, Mal O’Kelly warned me, “It’s like being hit on the back of the head by a baseball bat of noise, Darce”.

When I heard what Mal was talking about all I was thinking was: ‘This Is Brilliant. I can’t wait to get my hands on the ball.’ Then it was over. It was like playing schoolboys again for the first time in Donnybrook. Your relevant time disappears. It feels like 15 not 100 minutes.

This Ireland team has experienced all of this. Learned all these lessons.

France are quite well balanced in midfield with the skills of Freddie Michalak, the smooth running of Wesley Fofana and their sledgehammer. Bastareaud looks in great shape. You can always tell from the jerseys.

Game time

He is here to play but I still think he can be completely shut down. One of the things about Robbie Henshaw is he isn’t giving up any inches to him and about two less stone that I was. Even when I made perfect entry into a tackle on Mathieu I didn’t always slow him down.

I’m sure Robbie would like more game time but he looked strong in the contact against Italy. That was enough for me.

Bastareaud is the type of player you must hit on suspicion. Not in the manner Owen Farrell got sin-binned, and Sam Burgess should have, last Saturday. You do it without selling yourself and your team-mates up the river. If everybody is stepping in after Johnny Sexton the next man has to make sure his shoulder goes in on Bastareaud. He is not a man you want to be reading past the ball because he will free his arms and offload.

Morgan Parra is more of a worry for me. He’s definitely a game changer, so different to the other French scrumhalves in that he can come on and take over the kicking. And take over the game.

When you play France you must do so with tempo. Do this and their power game can crumble. Keep them moving and find the mismatches where they least expect it. Now, where do they least expect Ireland to attack from?

That’s where the sting will be revealed.

I know we have the players to do it. I can’t wait to see the Irish forwards feeding off each other, the backs off Johnny and Jared.

But I don’t want them to play the game of their lives – keep that for the World Cup final – but this has to be a game where Ireland hit an eight out of ten. If France do likewise we will get past them and then they become the All Blacks’ problem.

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