The major statistic from last week's opening round of the Six Nations Championship is that France scored three tries. England and Italy scored two. The Celts bring up the rear, with Ireland and Wales scoring one each and the poor old Scots not yet able "to cross the stripe".
The relationship between scoring three tries and winning international matches is as close to 100 per cent as statistics go. In last year’s Southern Hemisphere Rugby Championship, every team that scored three tries won. As a matter of fact, every game of the championship was won by a team scoring three tries or more. The only match world champions New Zealand lost in 2015 was the only time they did not score three tries. Australia defeated them, by scoring three tries.
I have no doubt the French are not only aware of this statistic, but that scoring three tries is part of their gameplan.
While it is too early into the Guy Novés era to conclusively state that France are attacking with more purpose that in the last decade, we can say the attacking shape and structure that we saw from France last week was intelligent, deliberate and well designed. We can also state that France off-loaded out of contact 15 times. A massive increase from recent years. Also the quality of the French passing was markedly more accurate.
Novés is a flint-hard man who does not suffer fools. He is attuned to how to create space in attack and he knows the starting place for this is in the players’ minds.
I was delighted to see the French attacking mindset last week.
The change was best displayed when they attempted to lift the attacking tempo and took a quick tap and ran the ball, rather than kicking a penalty. This led to the Damien Chouly’s try.
As the French players become more attuned to his “fatherly tough love” that is the Novés style, the team as a collective will improve. Coaching is a process, not a series of miracles.
He will demand a disciplined, aggressive and well-structured attack from his players, or he will simply discard them – as Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani and Hugo Bonneval have discovered to their great surprise.
We can conclude with some degree of certainty that if France continue to score three tries in the remaining matches, they will win the Six Nations.
All of which is bad news for Ireland because Ireland have to stop them and try to score some tries of their own.
Holes in the blue wall
On that point, the French defensive system looked anything but solid against the Italians. There are holes in the blue wall for Ireland to exploit, if they can get organised and not use ‘one-off’ runners as they did against Wales.
While I have questioned the attacking structures of Ireland, I have never questioned the players’ commitment. The physical and emotional effort of the men in green last week was inspirational. The nation expects its players to give their all when they pull it on the green jersey, and the team did just that.
The young players given their opportunity last week did themselves proud. But that was at the Aviva . . .
After the recent terrorist atrocity outside the Stade de France, the stadium has become a symbol of French cultural defiance, to those who would rip it down. A place for the French to revel in their unique esprit de corps.
The scrum will be a crucial battle on the French hallowed soil.
With 11 carriers and 18 tackles, Jack McGrath’s general play was excellent. Yet the Irish scrum struggled and this week they face two powerful and motivated props.
Uini Atonio and Jefferson Poirot are both destructive scrummagers. They will be targeting the Irish scrum, aiming to create mental dominance and deny the Irish backs an attacking platform. They aim is to put pressure on the South African referee, Jaco Peyper, to penalise the retreating Irish pack. Jules Plisson proved to be an excellent pressure kicker last week. He will make Ireland pay for any slacking at scum time.
Nothing will inspire the French crowd like an Irish scrum on roller-skates. The French supporters love nothing more than seeing opposition frontrowers getting bent to a point where they are getting a close-up inspection of their own backsides. This will be a joy to both the French crowd and les Bleus.
Ireland must improve their scrum if they are to have any hope.
Yet there is another factor for the Irish to fear. The last time these teams clashed, at the World Cup, France were humiliated. Sportsmen don’t forget humiliations. Revenge is a very basic instinct, but it remains as deep-rooted in the human heart as ever.
France want revenge. They want to bury the memory of the humiliation at Cardiff and gain atonement from an angry French rugby community.
If France score three tries, they will win. If Ireland can limit them to less that three, they have a chance. It is as simple as that.
If Ireland can score three tries . . . I will be exceptionally surprised.
A monumental battle for the Irish team awaits.