Can the Real France Please Stand Up!
Ireland v France: 14th February 17:00 Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road
Philippe Saint Andre’s side arrive in Dublin this weekend without the usual whirl of excitement and unpredictability surrounding them. Last week’s victory was routine, insofar as they beat Scotland, but the Gallic flair missing in action since the turn of the decade, most certainly did not make its long awaited return. In fact the secret to success last week was a full out assault by their massive pack and the nerveless boot of outhalf experiment 257, Camille Lopez. The carefree, predictably unpredictable French really seem to be a team of the, admittedly recent, past.
That said, Ireland didn’t exactly pull up trees in Rome but a twenty three point victory away to the Azzurri should never be sniffed at. If Italy are the barroom brawler of this tournament then Ireland are the measured, risk free counter-puncher, picking you off with jabs rather than going for the lights out haymaker. Make no mistake, Ireland came out of this particular scrap, extremely comfortable victors. Joe Schmidt would have been happy with the clinical use of the numerical advantage after Italy’s Leonardo Ghiraldini was sent to the sin bin. That’s not to say that the expected accuracy was there throughout and imprecision and sluggishness were clearly evident throughout the opening hour. Whether this can be explained by the usual opening weekend rustiness and the Six Nations starting debut of five players remains to be seen.
‘Write off France at your peril ‘ was a statement that always carried weight, particularly around these parts, where a victory over France was a largely mythical concept, until Brian O’ Driscoll’s hat- trick and David Humphrey’s nerveless accuracy put paid to that, in Paris, in March 2000. That was Ireland’s first victory over France in Paris since 1975 and in that intervening period the French had been defeated in Dublin just once in 1983. After a period of minor dominance at the turn of the millennium France proceeded to register 12 out of 13 victories against Ireland in all tournaments up until the drawn game in Paris in 2012. The last three games between the sides have ended in two draws and last year’s win for Ireland, meaning for the first time since 1974 France will be looking to avoid a run of four games without a victory over the Irish. Now, I’ve used the facts to suit my argument but there is no disputing the fact that Ireland are undefeated by France in four years. A similar, once in a generation blip like this occurs between the hurlers of Kilkenny and Wexford.
As of this morning France are six point underdogs for tomorrow’s game. This could be more if half-cut, patriotic Irish fans decide to skew the market even more. I would be confident, though clearly open to contradiction, in saying that France have never in their history arrived in Dublin with the locals favoured so heavily. I have heard numerous people say this week that the bookies have this one completely wrong. My understanding, as a casual and largely unsuccessful gambler, is that the handicap line is set in response to where the public’s money is going, not because Messrs. Power and Boyle think France are rubbish and that everything Joe Schmidt touches turns to gold, although it kind of does.
My gripe here is actually with the French. How have Les Bleus, comfortably Ireland’s toughest out historically, save for their nemesis in the deep south, allowed the Irish public regard them with such disdain? Recent memories are invoked of any one of Ntamack, Dominici or Bernat-Salles cutting us to pieces with such wilful disdain and exuberance. Despite the numerous humiliating defeats one couldn’t help but hold the rogue, carefree and infinitely skilful Frenchmen in such high regard.
And how could any Irish sports fan ever forget our bête noire, Vincent Clerc, tormenting us for years and finally putting the cherry on top by stepping John Hayes in open country; if only he’d run at him beside a ruck; and silencing Croke Park on rugby’s debut in, arguably, Europe’s finest stadium.
That’s not even ten years ago and yet France’s arrival tomorrow brings less trepidation than the arrival, in a fortnight’s time, of Ireland’s whipping boys of the mid noughties, England. The French, particularly their coaching staff, should be ashamed of themselves. Just watch Serge Blanco’s winning try in the 1987 World Cup semi-final against Australia, ideally with the French commentary, then switch to last week’s horrible slog in Paris. The build up to the try is ridiculous, equal part under 8s mayhem and uncoachable, glorious, heads-up rugby. Unfortunately instinct seems to have been shorn from the 2015 edition of France.
Tomorrow’s game unsurprisingly will be won up front, admittedly a lazy statement that applies to every rugby match outside the Pacific Island Nations. Ireland’s pack is aggressive, disciplined, ferocious at the breakdown and actually slightly heavier per man than France. The French are always incredibly abrasive though and their game will surely be predicated on tight carries by the pack, supplemented by some monsters off the bench and the assistance of the bulldozing, borderline unstoppable when he’s on form, Mathieu Bastareaud. The French backline, on paper, where everyone bar the players themselves play out these games, is every bit as impressive as Ireland’s, and considerably better in one area, midfield. Here, France have Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, who if used correctly, are surely the greatest centre pairing in world rugby; a complimentary rugby equivalent of Laurel and Hardy. Fofana glides through defences in a manner similar to the great Conrad Smith and his strength belies his relatively narrow frame. The back of three of Yoann Huget, South African Scott Spedding and the superbly named, throwback left wing Teddy Thomas are every bit as impressive as opposite numbers Kearney, Bowe and Zebo. However the caveat with this French backline is that they can be unstoppable but only if used correctly or rearmed with their traditional licence to thrill. While solid last week, it didn’t look as though Lopez and South African scrum half Rory Kockott, see the theme here, were going to allow their outside backs rain hell on the Scots. There is no question that Ireland enjoy a clear advantage in this department, even taking into account Jonathan Sexton’s inevitable, early rustiness.
Perhaps both sides were keeping their powder dry last week but I don’t buy this theory for a second. Schmidt cuts his cloth to suit the measure while Saint Andre’s team have been rudderless and uninspired since the beginning of his stint as French head coach. If he’s playing the long game with the World Cup in October in mind, then I tip my hat to him. But let’s be honest, he isn’t.
Ireland’s back row has the potential to become a missile launch site once more with the return of the ever dependable Jamie Heaslip and Ireland’s most exciting and, when fully fit, devastating ball carrier, Sean O’ Brien. Thierry Dusautoir, Damien Chouly and Bernard le Roux, from guess where, bring plenty of ballast themselves and will be more than content to go to war. Whoever dominates at the breakdown should present decent go-forward ball to either Lopez or the returning Sexton. Ireland need to be more creative in midfield and the suspicion remains that Robbie Henshaw is playing one position too far inside. Bastareuad and Fofana will welcome traffic up the middle with glee and return it with interest.
Both back threes, as mentioned, are brimming with attacking potential and the midfield playmakers will need to employ subtlety, Bastareaud aside, to unlock two very well organised defences. Stuart Hogg had some moments of brilliance last week in Paris and the opportunity should present itself for Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe to find some unmanned green grass, particularly once the game breaks up a little in the second half. The Cork man seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder for Ireland and thus far it suits him. A moment of brilliance by him, Bowe or the electric Thomas may well decide this contest.
Even as an Irishman who gets giddily excited as to what may await us in the next eight months, I long for the return of the swashbuckling, give a flying shite, French team of years gone by.
Unfortunately they won’t make their return tomorrow. I don’t think we, the Irish public, are a million miles off this time.
Ireland by 6.
England –v- Italy – 14:30 – 14th February – Twickenham
A brief, lazy deferral to history to summarise this one.
On 14th February 1929, six members of Bugsy Moran’s Irish mob on Chicago’s north side were executed, the result of a long running feud with legendary, infamous Italian American mob boss, Al Capone. The incident would go down in lore as The St Valentine’s Day Massacre Tomorrow. Tomorrow in Twickenham history should repeat itself but unfortunately for the Italians, there’s little chance of them springing the surprise attack.
The weather isn’t forecast to be great for London tomorrow but frankly it’ll take a monsoon to stop this contest turning into a slaughter. The English juggernaut is most certainly up and rolling and Stuart Lancaster’s side will be well aware that, in a tight Championship where a Grand Slam looks unlikely, points difference will most likely come into play. Once the game gets loose don’t be surprised if everybody outside George Ford gets on the score sheet.
The Italians are always game, to a man, but that won’t be near enough here.
England by 35 (and the rest)
Scotland –v- Wales – 15:00 – 15th February – Murrayfield
This game is intriguing for a number of reasons. Firstly, Wales’ record, 51-3, beating of Scotland in last year’s closing round will be to the forefront of everybody’s mind, north of the Wall. However the Scottish sides of March 2014 and February 2015 are definitely not the same animals. Once aimless and toothless, Scotland’s performances in November and more so last week suggest that Vern Cotter has breadth new life into a team who had been lurking in the wilderness for far too long. The Scots, just like their opponents tomorrow, are a massively proud nation and Cotter has very adeptly tapped into this, at least from the outside looking in, latent pride.
Cotter, like his friend Joe Schmidt an alumni of Clermont Auvergne, has taken a rudderless team and instilled discipline and confidence, two cornerstones to any successful side. Tomorrow is a real litmus test as a narrow, brave defeat will no longer cut the mustard with either the players, it never does to be fair, or the Scottish public.
Wales come to Edinburgh on the back of a chastening defeat to England where they squandered an early ten point lead and failed to score in the second half. In truth the five point defeat could have been so much worse and the manner of the defeat, getting comprehensively outplayed in every facet of the game by your greatest and oldest rival at home, has to be disconcerting for Warren Gatland and his coaches and players, not to mention the wider Welsh public. Gatland ran home with his ball on Friday night and gave his players the silent treatment for letting him down. It’s tough enough for the players to deal with a defeat at home to England without being treated to Gatland’s childish histrionics. Nonetheless hooker Richard Hibbard rallied during the week and said that the “players owe him that (a better performance) for giving us a second chance.” As if he was going to drop the entire team!
It appears that Gatland’s template has become dated. To his credit, using huge men to smash smaller men has brought great success to Wales in recent years but change and variety are vital and the best coaches and teams are always evolving, even if only very slightly. This Welsh team misses Shane William’s trickery and the unfairly maligned Jamie Roberts can’t be relied on to batter down the castle gates every single time. It was intimated last week that Wales are performing with one eye on the World Cup. I prefer Clive Woodward’s blueprint in 2003; annihilate all in front of you and set down a marker for the World Cup later on that year. It’s defecate or get off the pot time for both sides on Sunday.
Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar and the mercurial Stuart Hogg should get plenty of opportunities on Sunday to usurp their more illustrious opponents. Hogg can and does match the ridiculous with the sublime but in an era of increasingly one sized giants, his potential to unlock a defence is invaluable. Scotland need to win to continue their development, Wales to dismiss the nagging feeling that theirs has ceased altogether.
As AC/DC’s Bon Scott and his inimitable voice squealed all those years ago, “It’s a Long Way to the Top if you Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Scotland aren’t even close to there yet but a victory on Sunday will confirm that their ascent continues in earnest.
Scotland by 2
Bill Lonergan – 13th February 2015