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Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland must show courage and continue unrelenting attack

Ireland and France share similar playing styles with one or two points of difference

We'll always have Paris," is not a phrase uttered by many Ireland rugby players because memories of the experience for the majority would be rather painful ones.

Irish teams have endured some pretty tough afternoons in the French capital on the fields of Stade Colombes, Parc des Princes or Stade De France.

Since 2000 which heralded a first victory in 28 years on Parisian soil, Ireland have managed three wins and a draw but I am cautiously optimistic that they can add positively to that tally on Saturday. It is a contest between two teams that beat New Zealand in November who share similar playing styles with one or two points of difference.

The similarities start with a possession based game, both teams hogging 60 percent of the ball with the majority inside the opposition half. The French threw 158 passes to Italy’s 93 – it would be reasonable to assume an even higher number had the weather been better – while Ireland passed on 238 occasions to Wales’s 160.

Ireland had 172 rucks and 70 percent were under the magic milestone of three seconds while the French comparable was 96 and 65 percent; that’s premium possession for teams that like to play ball. The set piece is a foundation that’s common to both teams’ ambition to attack.

Despite being penalised a couple of times, the French scrum provided a rock solid launch pad while their lineout and more accurately the maul that ensued provided the genesis for three of their five tries. That latent power surge also forced Italy to concede five penalties. It drains the strength of opposing teams with the real dividend often to be found in the end game.

It did beg a question as to why the Italians kicked the ball off the pitch when they struggled to stymie France at maul time. Those are the type of poor ‘in-play’ decisions that are usually a direct result of the pressure one team is applying to the other. In this instance, Italy were locked in a vicious downward spiral with which they are all too familiar.

The only way to release that pressure is to not simply hang onto the ball but to try and take some of the collisions on your terms, using footwork to find space and soft shoulders, especially when you are the ‘smaller’ team. The Italians gave up possession a little too easily through poor kicking or handling.

Starting point

Ireland’s lineout platform was equally lucrative and a starting point for three of the tries, including Bundee Aki’s which demonstrated a clever variation.

Wales stayed down, set to defend a catch and drive but Josh van der Flier broke off before the maul moved to capitalise on the fact that the defence must remain 10 metres back. The Irish openside, eventually stopped by Ellis Jenkins, found Caelan Doris who in turn collected three defenders in contact, taking four Welsh players in total, out of the defensive line.

The visitors did enough to delay Jamison Gibson-Park with the result that the momentum was stifled for a split second. Garry Ringrose takes a direct route into contact. An area to improve on from the Autumn Nations Series is Ireland's capacity to realign when the initial attacking shape breaks down and they managed this beautifully in this passage of play.

Tadhg Furlong carried into contact and as Wales 'over folded' a little to the open side of the ruck, the Irish attack changed direction. Tadhg Beirne appreciated what was happening behind him and worked hard to get into position to be the fulcrum of the next Ireland attack.

What’s crucial is that Gibson-Park didn’t wait for players to be set; he operated on the premise that each player standing in line was a potential and willing receiver and that his team-mates would react to that situation. Beirne was primed but crucially he had other options to the one he chose.

Ronan Kelleher understood how the situation might play out and offered an alternative to the one that his team-mate plumped for while James Ryan, Hugo Keenan and Doris were potential recipients in that broader passing channel.

Aside from the initial ruck in this sequence where Wales managed to slow down possession, the visitors weren’t able to continue that disruption and the ball from the ensuing rucks was delivered at exceptional pace. It forced Wales to condense in their defensive line and this allowed Ireland the opportunity to strike out wide.

As a brief aside at the other end of the spectrum in terms of the match timeframe when Conor Murray arrived on the field Wales were spread thin either too tired to reset or hoping to defend where Ireland might be in the wider channels, something which Ireland’s replacement scrumhalf appreciated and he picked Welsh pockets on the fringes of rucks with a couple of nice breaks. It was great to see.

General philosophy

Aki and Ringrose stationed themselves in first receiver on multiple occasions which to me indicated a more general philosophy rather than a prescribed attack. There are no narrow parameters as to who does what when Ireland are looking to move the ball; the personnel like the patterns fluid with a primary focus on getting the ball to where it needs to go rather than worrying about who is doing it.

France are a big, physical side that squeeze the life out of their opponents as they did to the Italians

It’s been a while since Ireland travelled to Paris with a genuine expectation of winning; it’s certainly not the norm. In the past when Irish teams were given an elevated chance of causing an upset, they were occasionally in a better place form-wise going into a match.

Even on those rare victorious occasions, Ireland have never won a match in the French capital in what might be described as a comfortable fashion and if they are to prevail on Saturday, the likelihood is that it will be another nerve shredding evening.

Given the way that the teams set up it promises to be a cracking encounter, potentially one of the games of this season's Six Nations tournament.

Courage comes in many forms and one of those is moral which Andy Farrell’s squad must embrace to be successful. They have to retain the conviction, the mental strength to continue to trust the patterns that have yielded tries, driven by ruck speed, smart decision making and an array of ball carriers.

Ireland do not need to score from every play but they do need to continue to apply pressure in as many passages of play as they possibly can. There is a risk element as they turned over the ball 21 times but when weighed against the number of passes it was a reasonable margin of error, one that was similar coincidentally to the French.

Where Ireland have been smart to date has been around lineout attack, using the dummy maul to keep the defences back 10 metres and then picking their channel to attack. The variety in this respect has been impressive. France will ask more questions as four of the back five in their pack are athletic and genuine lineout options.

The battle at the breakdown will be crucial to the outcome as both teams crave quick ball and know that they can severely disrupt their opponents if they can slow it down past the three second mark. There is a ‘zero talent’ ethos within this Irish squad, a reference to the fact that the integrity of effort requires no ability per se.

Gibson-Park’s speed to rucks ensures that the ball will be moved from the breakdown and players need to either be in the ‘shape’ or offer themselves to carry hard. A simple principle but possibly the most important one in rugby; if the ball is moved from the ruck the instant it’s ready there is a high probability the defence will not be set. Ireland don’t always need to get over the gain-line to apply pressure.

Wales, to their credit, at various points in the first half managed to disrupt Ireland’s possession, despite struggling in the initial contact.

The unrelenting nature of Ireland’s attack takes its toll though, depleting opposition energy resources to the point where they have little in reserve with which to attack. So this negative spiral emerges for the opposition and the Irish know they will get the ball back and continue to attack, building pressure, building possession, building territory and finally the scoreboard.

To date Ireland have been able to win the gain-line in possession; even New Zealand were flummoxed. France are a big, physical side that squeeze the life out of their opponents as they did to the Italians.

French defence

The Irish attack has yet to come up against a defence like the French. The All Blacks' defence was about covering space and trying to smother the attackers. Shaun Edwards, a scourge of many an Irish team over the years, will have primed his players to put pressure on the second wave of attackers in the Irish shape and the French will come high at speed.

The similarities between the two teams are clear with both attacking philosophies in rude health

A key component of Edwards’s defence is the tackler never gets ahead of the ball: his motto, ‘when the ball is in the air, accelerate onto the man.’ This defence is breathtakingly effective when the ruck is slow to medium, invariably catching players in possession behind the gain-line.

However it is ineffective when the ball is quick as in that scenario players are disjointed trying to align and that leaves holes and mismatches. The onus for Ireland is to continue to manufacture quick ball and produce carriers the moment the ball is available. To shy away from this, to stop passing the ball to the space will play into the very large hands of the French.

Ireland will need to drag this French team the length and breadth of the pitch to be in with a shout of winning, and even with that it is still going to be tough.

The similarities between the two teams are clear with both attacking philosophies in rude health. For me the winner will be determined on the flip side in whichever team defends better.

There was enough in the Italian match to indicate that a stout Irish defence can slow down the French ruck speed and there is enough evidence from the Wales game that Ireland can maintain that quick ruck speed.

The outlier is innate French flair and that’s why Saturday’s game is a mouth-watering prospect.

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