Liam Toland: Conservative game played into French hands
Ireland failed to press home advantage when they were on top in the first half
Statistics, unfortunately, can confuse. I expected to witness very clever Irish actions on Saturday to cause French ‘reaction’, especially from their wingers. We did see an early bombardment to both wings, and that proved troubling, but Ireland lacked really clever actions to prise open a vulnerable opponent.
I mentioned one player in particular last Friday: their 145kg tighthead, Uini Atonio. Rabah Slimani was left on the bench in lieu of the vastly larger Atonio. Jack McGrath destroyed him and Ireland got penalties building towards their nine-point opening haul. But at half-time I was concerned that we hadn’t reaped the rewards for our domination. Why?
The referee certainly didn’t help. France could have had men in the sin-bin for ‘dubious’ play. Jaco Peyper could have displayed less patience with France’s cynical management of Ireland’s phase play; ditto the early dominant Irish scrum. But that would be painting a slightly wrong picture.
And key Irish injures hardly helped.
We had whatever time Atonio was on the pitch to build a lead on the scoreboard. On Friday I warned that their substitute props would have an impact on arrival by eking out kickable penalties from their scrum.
Ireland arrived into the French 22 on several occasions in the opening quarter. France set up their lineout defence to match Ireland’s numbers. But the big man Atonio stood at the tail every time; that happened for six Irish lineouts in a row.
His function was to provide a third defensive lineout pod utilising his strength to provide a one-man lift. Wales did likewise last week and put huge pressure on Rory Best. That’s part one . And I was licking my lips at part two.
That was expose Atonio’s terrible dexterity, footwork and general knowledge of a classic openside’s role – that of defending the empty channel from lineout tail to outhalf.
This role has been diluted over the years where hookers, who are similar physically to opensides such as David Pocock, are the main protagonist. Atonio is no Pocock. Not once did Ireland ask Atonio questions in this space, such as an off-the-top lineout to an onrushing blindside winger, or Robbie Henshaw being led by Johnny Sexton.
Within moments of kick-off Atonio was panting and looking uncomfortable. Especially so in the evolving French defensive line. Not once did Ireland shift the point of attack quickly to Atonio.
Unfortunately, as Ireland’s attacking phase progressed, the recycle slowed down, letting the French fill the field and thereby hide Atonio in solid chains of three. He made five tackles, but all on his terms (zero missed). In essence, the opportunity to run at him with space on either side closed by the fourth phase.
In other words, we had 44 minutes to make hay before Slimani et al arrived.
In scoring nine points in that time, we failed. And in so doing, we displayed a lack of creativity that’s concerning for two international second halves in a row.
The fact France are currently learning their systems during actual games has paradoxically forced Ireland to become more conservative; why take chances when France are taking crazy chances that we can feed off? But Ireland were forced to make nearly twice as many tackles than France, missing over three times as many.
After Ireland had camped in French territory, Devin Toner went off his feet and all of a sudden France were only three points behind.
Worryingly, Atonio who should have been dead and buried was now running onto front-foot ball; and he’s a man I never want to tackle. Mike McCarthy made a massive hit on Atonio on 42 minutes but Ireland started racking up the tackle count – 191 to 103.
The game changed and, with it, France in their muddled attacking systems launched monsters at the Irish defence; it was far from ideal.
That France outrucked us and in particular outmauled us is especially upsetting. The two breakdown penalties either side of half-time were infuriating. The maul is our strength and from a pack cobbled together like France’s, it should have been our trump card.
Sexton went down the line from a sixth-minute penalty and Ireland elected for a short lineout with Seán O’Brien at scrumhalf going around the front off a peel. Nice play but why not a classic Irish lineout maul? In the third quarter France kicked for the corner and asked lineout maul questions. Ireland destroyed it; that was an insight into the poor French cohesion we were unable to expose.
Neither French wingers were asked questions, which doesn’t mean Ireland weren’t trying a multi-phase approach to exposing them. Take the wonderful interplay from Conor Murray to CJ Stander: it was set up for Stander to circle-pass to Murray, who continued his run into open field; but instead Stander found his blindside winger running into space off the French ruck. Moments later the same move was employed to get Rob Kearney into space. But there was little else to expose France; Atonio had long since gone.
The play of the day? The most subtle and sublime offload from France fullback Maxime Médard to his openside Yacouba Camara. The offload was perfect but the aggressive and positive line from Camara was even better. Both Toulouse players in front of their Toulouse coach; coincidence? firstname.lastname@example.org