Gerry Thornley: French lesson in offloading is one Ireland must take on board

The way the modern game is going means the offload must be central to attacking strategy

France’s Mohamed Haouas receives an offload from Gregory Alldritt during the Six Nations game against Ireland at the Avivs Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

France’s Mohamed Haouas receives an offload from Gregory Alldritt during the Six Nations game against Ireland at the Avivs Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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Just over 10 minutes into last Sunday’s game at the Aviva Stadium, after one of innumerable strong carries by Gregory Alldritt, his fellow backrower Anthony Jelonch was tackled to the ground and sought to pop the slippery pill up for the supporting Mohamed Haouas but his offload squirted forward and out of the tighthead’s reach.

They both looked peed off but there were no recriminations, and it’s doubtful there will be any in the review at Marcoussis either.

It’s all about risk and reward.

Nearing the half-hour, by which point Ireland had done many things well and had come within a few blades of painted grass of taking an 8-0 or 10-0 lead, and with France temporarily down to 14 men, Gaël Fickou trucked lineout ball over the gainline and France sprang vibrantly into life.

The buck stops with Farrell of course, who will now be feeling the heat

Off the recycle, typically quick footwork by Matthieu Jalibert enabled him to free his right hand in a double tackle by Josh van der Flier and Robbie Henshaw and offload to Julien Marchand on his inside. The hooker immediately took Billy Burns’s tackle to offload right-handed inside to Antoine Dupont and as he was hit by Garry Ringrose, the scrumhalf lobbed a left-handed pass wide to Damian Penaud.

In three seconds France had made almost as many offloads as Ireland would in the entire match.

There was no messing off the recycle, no trucking it up, rather Dupont and Jalibert worked the ball wide to Fickou behind the blanket of forward decoys and the latter popped the ball out to give Charles Ollivon a free run to the line. Granted, Jamison Gibson-Park took himself out of the game by coming in off the wing but even so that little French vignette of summed up the key difference between the sides.

France have the capacity to conjure a try out of the blue like no one else bar the All Blacks. It also gave the lie to the theory that offloading is based on winning the collisions through force, as it emanated from Jalibert’s footwork as much as his hands.

What’s more, Marchand sensed it was coming and so then too did Dupont. France have a structure or a plan around offloading, as when Alldritt and Jelonch combined to threaten the Irish line later in the first half.

Of course, listening to the Brennans last week was a reminder that it’s also more innate or instinctive in France. Even as a boy mountain, 12-year-old tighthead prop Dan Brennan recalled being taught how to pop the ball off the ground or offload out of the tackle. Trevor was also taught it after joining Toulouse at 28, which shows that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Perhaps the pick of Ireland’s offloads was the 78th-minute one-handed reverse offload by Gibson-Park back to the waiting James Lowe as he was being tackled into touch by Teddy Thomas. Gibson-Park then supported Lowe when the winger created a touchline channel with a sway inside and a no-look pass.

When Gibson-Park then looked inside there was no one in support and the pity was that he didn’t step infield before being tackled into touch by the outstanding Brice Dulin.

Ireland winger James Lowe clears the ball as France’s Gael Fickou attempts to block during the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Ireland winger James Lowe clears the ball as France’s Gael Fickou attempts to block during the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

That Irish vignette was admittedly born out of desperation and probably fostered on New Zealand pitches in barefoot underage games.

Not that Irish players can’t offload. Ringrose and Tadhg Beirne showed it with a couple of quick offloads in succession. Leinster do it more than the other Irish provinces and Ireland have other players that can offload too. But it’s a skill that needs work and needs to be worked into Ireland’s game more than is the case, all the more so as the emphasis on lowering the tackle should facilitate offloading.

The updated offloading figures for Sunday’s game were 14-5, yet other figures from the game back up the feeling that in many areas Ireland performed well.

The co-opting of Paul O’Connell onto the coaching ticket has reaped a swifter dividend than could have been hoped, with the lineout and maul both much improved.

Andy Farrell’s post-match assertion that Ireland’s breakdown work is sharper was also backed up by the statistics. Ireland retained 97 per cent of their ruck ball, also forcing four turnovers at the breakdown while only conceding two. They also generated quicker ball, with 67 per cent of their rucks (compared to 51 per cent for France) recycled within nought to three seconds.

Rhys Ruddock, Iain Henderson and Cian Healy excelled on Ireland’s own ruck ball, with Ruddock, Beirne and Van der Flier the most competitive on French ball – Beirne even engineering two steals.

Ireland also conceded only five penalties to nine, all of which perhaps underlines the importance of offloading, as the multi-phase tries which Ireland almost perfected in the halcyon days under Joe Schmidt are so much harder nowadays against defences as well organised as France, and with law tweaks favouring the jackal.

Ireland also had more possession (56 per cent ) but way less territory (41 per cent), and France’s policy of kicking long rather than to touch contributed to this. In what seemed like a pre-ordained plan, Ireland also kicked too much, as with an up-and-under off prime lineout ball on the French 22 and while Lowe’s monstrous left boot is a handy exit strategy, one senses he might have backed himself to instead run from deep after beating a tackle in the blue of Leinster.

Whatever about that, Ireland’s running game became increasingly more lateral as the game progressed, with even Ringrose and Hugo Keenan running diagonally across the pitch on several occasions. Sure, of all the coaching departments in the game, attack is the hardest to develop. Set-pieces, defence, breakdown, kicking etc can be more immediately addressed. But that said, Mike Catt has been the attack coach for over a year.

The buck stops with Farrell of course, who will now be feeling the heat. It’s all very well calling for experimentation against Italy, but even when Declan Kidney’s side were ravaged by injury, the sole Six Nations defeat against the Azzurri in 2013 cost the head coach his job.

Farrell hasn’t been having much luck either. Not only would you like to have seen last Sunday’s game take place in a packed Aviva, but with Ireland something closer to full-strength as well. Consider this, of the squad’s six-strong leadership group, for a 10-minute period early in the second-half only Ringrose was on the pitch.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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