20:05, 31st OCTOBER 2020, STADE DE FRANCE, PARIS
The prevalent mood is that Ireland have not played well enough to be in the running for this year’s Six Nations Championship. Perhaps the disjointed season is to blame.
True, it is very difficult to view this season through a prism of normalcy but the lingering negativity around the team has been bloated by the abysmal opening 40 minutes in Twickenham in March followed by the abrupt halt to all sport.
Seven months passed and the negative memory of Twickenham remained, without any of the positives from the victory over Wales two weeks previously. And, due to recency bias and the way England have strangled Ireland over the last 18 months, the pessimism is easy to countenance.
Ireland were comprehensively beaten in London that day but their undoing came largely from an inability to cover the backfield to the short kick and the all-round magnificence of Maro Itoje.
England themselves had gone to Paris on the crest of a successful World Cup – admittedly replete with a harsh lesson from South Africa in the final – but found themselves ambushed and embarrassed by a highly motivated French side.
If we consider Ireland’s performances to date, there was a nervous victory over Scotland, an improved if-not resounding one over Wales and before the enforced break, the comprehensive defeat in Twickenham.
Last weekend saw the resumption of the 2020 tournament and it should come as little surprise that the game was speckled with rust. The final score of 50-17 was probably a fair reflection as Italy battled gamely – a patronising but fair accolade for a team that offers very little to this tournament currently – and, though Ireland conceded late, it is unlikely to have any baring on the tournament’s outcome.
An Irish victory with a bonus point will guarantee Six Nations success for Andy Farrell in his first season in charge. This is extraordinarily unlikely, given that Ireland have put four tries past France in Paris just once.
This happened in France’s 43-31 victory in the 2006 Championship. Some recent articles have described this as a swashbuckling Ireland performance and this is true to an extent, However, if the swashbuckler was Ireland he stabbed himself in the face with his own sword about four times in the first half alone, whereupon France opened up a 40 point lead.
Ireland charged home hard with those four second-half tries but any possible allusion to Ireland coming close to stealing victory that day is revisionist history at its finest. It was an engrossing game but it was not a back and forth affair or one where victory was ever truly in Ireland’s grasp.
This is already too much reference to a match with little current relevance but it does emphasise the rarity of Ireland producing an offensive explosion away to France.
Even though it was a friendly, France looked highly impressive last weekend against Wales. After falling behind by 10 points early in the game, France proceeded to out score their visitors by 38 points to 11. They mixed their attack under the unflappable Antoine Dupont, and the breakneck running lines of Gregory Aldritt, captain Charles Ollivon and the irrepressible, Viremi Vakatawa, provided a glimpse into a potentially terrifying future for France’s Six Nations opponents.
Dupont may be the best player in the world right now, possessed of the skill common to the greats in all sports – Lionel Messi, Luka Doncic, Cameron Smith – of almost always making the correct decision. This skill isn’t predicated so much on instinct alone but on the awareness of what options are available to them and the knowledge to choose the right one.
The manner in which the French players carried last weekend is something that is slowly being reintroduced to the Irish game as, to be fair, the harder the line run, the more likely the carrier will commit a handling error.
Ireland’s game plan and plentiful success over the six years of Joe Schmidt’s reign owed much to ball retention and, for the most part, risk averse football.
You can’t just flick a switch and expect to revert to an all-out attacking approach. Indeed, the last attempt at this resulted in a dire opening 40 minutes in Yokohama in last year’s World Cup quarter final against New Zealand.
Joe Schmidt had a game plan that worked up to a point and brought Ireland its most successful ever era in terms of winning percentage and silverware. Ireland, for want of a better expression, got figured out by England in February 2019. Thus, it was necessary to evolve or, perhaps more accurately, adapt the game plan.
For Andy Farrell, following Schmidt was hard enough and attempting to imprint his style, and that of his coaching team in this elongated, meandering season must have added to the difficulty.
Perhaps though, like the rest of us and with time on has hands, Farrell was able to dive down a YouTube rabbit hole back in April and learn just what happened in Paris in the 90s and 00s when a French back line was allowed express itself against Ireland.
France, particularly in the absence of Teddy Thomas, still don’t have a back three to rival Poitreanuad, Dominici and Clerc for sheer attacking verve but there is balance across the division and in Dupont and Vakatawa, the two best in their position in world rugby.
If Ireland are to go all-out attack to begin, just what exactly does this mean? Move the ball wide immediately when pinned in our “22”? Or run harder lines and look for offloads out of contact early and often?
The latter option seems more sensible and attempts to introduce this facet of the game were clearly on view last weekend. C.J. Stander, an undeserving lightning rod for ex-players and journalist alike when Ireland struggle, had some lovely touches last weekend and, indeed, Peter O Mahony’s (5:09) beautiful pass for Bundee Aki’s try shows clear progress in Ireland’s attack.
True, this score came when the outcome had long since been decided but Ireland’s players need to be be in a position to execute comfortably in real time in order to instinctively attempt these passes in high pressure situations.
Like Stander, Aki’s importance to this team, allied to his durability, is often overlooked or undermined but there is no question that he can cause trouble for Vakatawa in defence and the collisions between these two should be exhilarating.
There is, frankly, no real sense in Ireland shooting from the hip from minute one as, even if they are to score four tries, it can be achieved through a collective positive approach as opposed to Jameis Winston gunslingin’ , as that approach has its drawbacks too. Against quality teams like France the onus is on winning the match, while the potential bonus point is just that.
An empty Stade de France should benefit Ireland and certainly the absence of the irresistible crescendo from the crowd when France embark on their magical passages of interplay should preclude the Irish players from being overcome mentally as well as physically.
France are currently on the same points as England, 13, and have a slim advantage in points difference. Therefore, for the French to win the title, they will almost need to match England’s margin of victory in Rome. This is not going to happen unless Ireland endure an extraordinary capitulation and Italy make two year’s worth of development in the space of seven days.
As the Brits are indeed at it again, the Six Nations trophy will be in Paris and not Rome for the tournament’s finale. However, that appears to be the greatest inconvenience Eddie Jones side will face this weekend.
In all likelihood, France will approach this as another stepping stone towards the 2023 home World Cup and a chance for their first choice half-back pairing of Dupont and Romain Ntamack to solidify their burgeoning combination.
While we would all love tomorrow to produce the drama and grandstand finish of 2015’s Super Saturday, it’s hard to see how an improving but still only decent Irish side will achieve something their predecessors never could.
France will never be as professional as the rest of the top-tier nations and, frankly, they don’t need to be. They, along with the Pacific Island Nations, can exhilarate in ways that other nations can only imagine.
It is simply impossible to expect military discipline, the bedrock of successful rugby teams, to combine seamlessly with ad-lib brilliance, particularly when the latter can’t really be taught. France may, though, be on the cusp of discovering a devastating hybrid of the two thanks to the introduction of quality coaches including Shaun Edwards and Raphael Ibanez.
And, with Dupont, France may possess the key to marrying the pragmatic with the ingenious. Or to put it less pompously, a brilliant rugby mind who relieves Ntamack of the tactical pressure, allowing the young out-half to flourish.
Ireland have the weapons to hurt France but they are short of potent ball carriers in the front five, and, while the legacies of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are secured, questions still remain over their current form.
Ironically, in the absence of a crowd, tomorrow night may mark the return of the Stade de France to the fortress of old.
S.U.S Sport Prediction: France by 6
Tips: Antoine Dupont 1st try @ 14/1
Viremi Vakatawa anytime try @ 7/4