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Ireland v France set to be the pivotal match of Six Nations

Gordon D’Arcy: Attacking rugby is on the rise thanks in part to the game being sped up

To be physically primed to win you must be mentally and emotionally attuned to cope with the task in hand. The three are interlinked and it’s not very often that a team will be able to compensate when one of the elements is lacking, certainly not in the big matches.

Perhaps the best illustration for me was in 2007 when Ireland played France in Croke Park in the Six Nations Championship, the match creating history as the first foreign sport to be played on that hallowed turf at GAA headquarters.

Armed with the benefit of hindsight, it’s fair to say that the emotion of the day left us short on the necessary accuracy to win. It’s as if we were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the occasion. It didn’t feel that cut and dried on the pitch at the time as we recovered from a slow start to give ourselves a chance to win.

I can still see that final passage of play in the mind’s eye, France reclaiming the restart to initiate a sequence of play that finished with Vincent Clerc accelerating through a fractured defensive line to touch down for a try and break Irish hearts.


There was an overpowering whiff of ‘what if’ in the dressing room after the match, mixed with acute disappointment and more importantly a resolve not to let it happen again, especially with England on the horizon.

At that point in our rugby evolution, we were in the transition phase, one or two victories away from a team that believed it could to a team that knew it would win. There were a couple of matches against New Zealand where the Kiwis found a way to win, those defeats leaving scar tissue behind that would rip open at inopportune moments, continually halting progress.

The current Ireland team is a very different prospect from a mental perspective. Andy Farrell’s charges expect to win if they play well, irrespective of the opposition. All the component parts are there, talent, belief, game plan, individual flair and mental toughness.

Watching France on Sunday reminded me that there is something still visible in the French rugby psyche that sees them occasionally shrug or switch off in performance terms. In 2007, they didn’t turn up at Twickenham and were beaten and in the final match against Scotland, conceding a try to Scottish tighthead prop Euan Murray on 76 minutes that looked like giving us the championship.

Unfortunately, Elvis hadn’t left the building, French number eight Vermeulen scoring following what might politely be termed a questionable TMO decision and in Rome we switched off mentally, conceding two tries in the last five minutes to Marco Bortolami and Roland di Marigny.

We lost out on a Six Nations title a points differential of four and it offered a brutal reality check to remind us just how far we still had to travel to repeatedly deliver on the talent within the squad.

Mindset will be so important next Saturday but so will the physical side of things in a tournament; the evidence of the officiating in the first round of matches provides great licence and scope for the attacking team.

Duhan van der Merwe scored one of the all-time great tries at Twickenham, Italy pushed France to breaking point and for 25-minutes Ireland ran riot at the Principality stadium and it felt like all the negative energy surrounding rugby in recent weeks had been vaporised.

The creativity across the three matches was first class, the matches moving at a fair old clip, and it was great that the fear surrounding a shed load of cards didn’t materialise.

Ball in play time was higher with the result that to my eye, and in a patently non-scientific appraisal, some players seemed to fatigue quicker. The fact that the focus of the analysis from the weekend is attacking rugby is also heartening.

Van der Merwe spotted a fractured English defensive line that got their spacing wrong and his footwork and strength did the rest.

In the current climate there is a certain irony that, given the recent outcry around the potential change to tackle height at various lower levels, had English number eight Alex Dombrandt set his sights a little lower, he might have been able to prevent the try.

This type of line break seemed more prevalent. Garry Ringrose busted a gut to chase down a wayward Johnny Sexton kick. Quick feet by Liam Williams sparked a fantastic Welsh counterattack and it took some good scrambling to snuff out the danger.

It might be a stretch to say this after the first round of matches, but I am hopeful that we have arrived at a point in rugby where the balance of the laws reward the attacking team. It was very clear that players were more measured in their tackle entry, but that did not for the most part remove any of the physicality in the game.

Ringrose and Owen Farrell produced with two rib ticklers, dominant tackles roughly waist high, that knocked the air from their victims. The pace of the game had increased with lineouts and scrums now formed without undue delay. The halfbacks being told to ‘use it’ forced all teams to kick in an unstructured fashion at some point in the games.

Less structured defence may be an unintended consequence of extra ball in play time, but it is to be welcomed. It will make a lot of defence coaches anxious, and indeed some players too as the likely upshot is that the missed tackles will increase, but good defenders as well as tacklers, will become more apparent.

France’s defence coach Shaun Edwards was appalled at the volume of missed tackles and penalties (18) his side coughed up during, what I would describe as, typically old-style French a performance as I can remember.

I lost count at the number of French try-scoring opportunities somewhere around the eight minute mark in the opening 40. At one-point Romain Ntamack’s complete lack of interest in a breaking ball presented to me a perfect illustration of the French mindset on the day.

Save for some typically impressive displays from Antoine Dupont and Gregory Aldritt, it was as abject a performance from France that I have seen in recent memory. There was an obvious lack of cohesion across the team, with players consistently making basic errors.

I wish to take nothing away from Italy, their performance showed that they are picking up where they left off in November, without a trace of second season syndrome under the new coaching ticket, and that for the first time in a long time the future is bright for the Italians. They fed off the French malaise.

However, France did score four tries, the bonus point, match-winning one, effortless and elegant. The adage about winning when you are playing poorly certainly applies when looking just at the result and not the performance.

The French will be better on Saturday of that there is no doubt, but I also think the same logic applies to Ireland. France’s mental and physical lapses will not be repeated.

The game is rich in promise, the number one and two ranked teams in the world going head to head, both playing similar fast tempo styles, facilitated by the premium ball from one to three second rucks running at about 60 per cent of the time.

Ireland must look as to why they surrendered 70-plus percent possession after their opening 25-minute blitz and were unable to generate another consistent attacking platform – Ross Byrne had a positive impact – until the game entered the final 10 minutes.

Wales ran out of steam late in the match, but they still created four or five try-scoring opportunities, something that the Irish coaching team will address in training this week. Ireland were not at their best, a stellar first quarter or so aside, and would subsequently come to rely too heavily for comfort, on their defence for the remainder of the match.

Andrew Porter, Ringrose and Conor Murray all made try saving interventions. Nonetheless the Irish defence held strong, and that is a superb place to be going with home advantage this weekend coupled with an attack that was breathtaking in that opening fusillade.

Ireland’s kicking game was initially on point but like many aspects of the game deteriorated to a point where they offered up free ball. Against France that would be catastrophic. The fact that Jamison Gibson-Park has been ruled out means that Murray will have to replicate his early excellence from Cardiff.

He ran out of steam towards the end of his shift but that is to be expected in a fast-paced game when you, as a player, are lacking match minutes. Farrell has some interesting selection calls to make if he decides that there are one or two players that are better suited to the challenge that France presents.

He will certainly want more of an impact from the bench, the contributions from most muted, because the French replacements will bring energy and dynamism. Ireland will once again need to create half a dozen try scoring chances and take four if they are to win.

In some respects given the new style of officiating it is how the respective defences cope, how quickly they realign and how many penalties are conceded that will offer a game defining shape on the outcome. Whatever happens it will be riveting.