Gordon D’Arcy: Brains will overcome brawn against France

France will take Ireland to a dark place, but a high enough tempo game should see us prevail

(From L) France’s centre Remi Lamerat, France’s scrum-half Baptiste Serin, France’s centre Gael Fickou, France’s prop Uini Atonio, France’s full back Scott Spedding and France’s flanker Louis Picamoles celebrate a try at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

(From L) France’s centre Remi Lamerat, France’s scrum-half Baptiste Serin, France’s centre Gael Fickou, France’s prop Uini Atonio, France’s full back Scott Spedding and France’s flanker Louis Picamoles celebrate a try at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. Photograph: Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

 

Almost all my success as a Leinster player came alongside Johnny Sexton, we won a Six Nations title together in Paris, so I maintain an unapologetic bias towards his continued selection as the Ireland outhalf.

When Johnny has played this season he looked even better than any of those trophy-winning seasons before joining Racing 92.

Not that I think Paddy Jackson is done developing. Paddy was good in Rome, his kicking off the tee immaculate and that sort of reliability always influences a coach’s mind, but I don’t believe there is a decision to be made here.

When France come to Dublin on Saturday week, a sufficiently recovered Sexton wears number 10. It’s not about what Paddy can or cannot do, has or has not done, it is what we know Johnny will do.

There is an argument to suggest Sexton, by his mere presence, is holding Jackson back. But that’s just the way it goes. In 2015, Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett was not a rivalry. When fit, Carter played because of a developed knowledge - which saw him get into position to drop the goal that guided New Zealand into the World Cup final – that came from over a decade living in the high pressure environment of Test matches.

Skip forward 12 months and Carter is playing for Racing while Barrett was voted world player of the year. But if Carter was still at his best, and living in New Zealand, Barrett would be coming off the bench at fullback.

At some stage Paddy Jackson will step out of Johnny Sexton’s shadow. It’s only then we might see a similar jump from incredibly talented player into something else, the next level, wherever that may be. Like Barrett did.

There have been plenty of encouraging signs, especially at the Stadio Olimpico, but he continues to be blocked by a fit Johnny Sexton.

My rational is based upon Johnny’s decision making. Jackson is steadily improving his accuracy but Sexton came into the Leinster number 10 jersey as a fully formed outhalf. Granted, he had to wait until he was 24-years-old. Sure, there were bumps on the road in the 2010 and 2011 seasons – as he gained the necessary experience while trying to fend off Rog (which, considering their competitive similarities, was never going to be a simple case of one replacing the other) - but when Johnny came on for Felipe Contepomi in the 2009 Heineken Cup semi-final all the necessary tools were already in evidence.

There is a clear mindset behind his approach: if I drive people, it makes them better and they make me better as a result. That’s his singular unwavering mindset.

An uninjured Sexton still starts.

My increasingly high opinion of France has not changed, even if their front five forwards continue to display either laziness or a lack of the necessary match fitness. Their attempted rejuvenation under Guy Novès remains on an upward trajectory despite the poor performance on Sunday. There was clear joy on French players' faces after beating Scotland in Paris. That’s an odd sentence to write. But they desperately needed to win a Test match.

Remember, France are trying to recover from a generation of decline, and they’re only 18 months into this largely uncharted journey.

Ireland need to expose all of this in Dublin. How? Well, by learning from the opening 20 minutes in Murrayfield and combining the energy sapping tempo displayed in Rome.

There was an impressive killer instinct to how Craig Gilroy ran in that last try. Italy wanted off the field but Ireland kept piling on the points. It was a statement the players felt they needed to make.

If that’s how we finish the Six Nations then those opening moments in Edinburgh will prove a blessing in disguise.

Now, France know what is coming as much as we know how physical and direct they will be. It’s just a case of us being accurate and seeing the opportunities before their defence does.

For example, a big Louis Picamoles tackle last Sunday saved France from the type of exploitation of space that hurt Ireland at Murrayfield.

Faced by a midfield of frontrowers, against a perfectly aligned Scottish offence, Picamoles shot up to drive Zander Fagerson backwards. It proved a vital intervention.

This is the ideal situation in rugby; big lads poorly spaced in midfield with a winger on the edge. To fail to exploit that is a cardinal sin.

We are talking about rugby intellect again. Picamoles saw the danger before Finn Russell could take control of the situation. A season from now, maybe even over the next few weeks, the speed of thought might click for Russell. He might see what Sexton automatically notices and demand that ball goes out the back.

An important process in beating France is to force them into constant defending, as Ireland did to Scotland and Italy, because after two or three minutes they will run out of energy.

There was one moment, with the sides locked at 16-all, when France fullback Scott Spedding took a sustained breather with the ball at his feet out of touch.

The only reasons I can deduce for this mini-break is Spedding was shattered or he knew his teammates were sucking diesel.

I also feel Scotland faded badly, around the hour mark, due to their lack of impact off the bench and having to use subs for injury rather than tactically. France did what they always do; replaced heavies with heavies and ground them down.

Ireland have shown they can cope with this in recent victories over France. Because we can go back to the proverbial well more than they can. That’s how Ireland beat France these days.

That doesn’t mean standing toe-to-toe for the entire match as we did at the World Cup. That exacted a huge cost as Paulie, Peter O'Mahony and Johnny were all forced off.

We played traditional Irish rugby that day – kicking long, giving up possession and inviting them on to us. Then we mauled them into submission.

Ireland under Joe Schmidt have spent the last 16 months evolving a game plan to avoid an all-out confrontational scenario against bigger opponents.

If we play at a high-enough tempo France will be forced into making earlier substitutions, so come the hour mark, when they seek to slow matters down, they will have huge bodies out on the field with little energy.

Then it comes down to identifying and exploiting their most tired players. Again, plenty of evidence of where to look. Uini Atonio – their mammoth tighthead prop – was struggling to pull himself off the deck after 15 minutes against Scotland.

Russell noticed, running at and then dancing around Atonio before a quick recycle yielded the latest Hogg special.

Russell nearly got the offload away but the bounce pass – so difficult to defend - did enough to spread hesitation in the French ranks and Hogg capitalised.

Such opportunities come from a lack of French conditioning. Contrast that with CJ Stander’s engine and proficiency as an international blindside, which Schmidt mentioned after his hat-trick. The same can be said about the work rate of Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. They almost seem to be in competition with each other, which is the best thing that can happen in a team environment.

But there’s clear evidence of them growing as a trio.

The impact of Josh van der Flier, coming in for the backrower who shows the slightest dip in energy, adds another element. How Joe finds room for a fit again O’Mahony, I don’t know. But Pete improves any team he gets picked on.

I imagine – after two high voltage Test matches – that Seanie will return to his world class best for France. The half breaks could turn into open field bursts, the slowing of ruck ball into clean turnovers.

The mismatches that Scotland exploited are what Schmidt will have compiled for the Carton House showreel this week. Irish players will be working on specific ways to open France up. And there are plenty of them.

Now, of course, it’s not simple. France possess an exceptional backrow of their own with Kevin Gourdon having as much influence as Picamoles, just in different areas of the game, and there will be long periods of punishing defence to halt their massive front five.

Ireland must do what Stander, Heaslip, Ultan Dillane and the rest did in Italy; keep the pace up for the last quarter. With this comes torturous pain. To be the first man off the floor means journeying to a dark place and enjoying your stay there.

If it’s a stop-start match then France are grinding out the result.

The two week run-in allows players get through plenty of running with ball in hand as they are forced into making decisions while fatigued.

The correct decision.

Some guys will have their load lightened. What we learned about Robbie Henshaw against Munster in October was that he can hit the ground running. So, it’s just a matter of keeping him fit. Since the concussion in November, he has consistently proved the importance of his physicality. Like our backrowers, he carries and defends in the same confrontational manner which allows Ireland play the clever way when the opportunity arises from his and others endeavour.

I’m looking forward to seeing Robbie against Gael Fickou. Even if they spring Bastareaud on us I’d have no concerns. Robbie’s over 100kg now.

I never had that size so it was always difficult defending the bigger lads. Just see how he dealt with Nemani Nadolo in Montpellier. For most of us it is about grabbing the bootlaces but Robbie stayed in the fight long enough to drag the big Fijian down.

That’s exactly what Ireland need to do next.

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