Picking out repeated habits and traits in France’s play is no easy feat, meaning Joe Schmidt, John Plumtree and Les Kiss will have faced one of the most difficult analytical weeks of their international careers in the build-up to this evening’s clash in Paris.
However, their focus will have largely been based upon what their own team will bring to the party at the Stade de France. Whatever about tactics, Plumtree underlines that Ireland face a bruising tie.
“They’ve been under a lot of pressure from the media, so I’m sure it’s going to be a pretty tough contest. Whenever you come to Paris, with any side, it’s always a tough encounter and I’m sure this one’s not going to be any different.”
Here are four tactical areas where Ireland will look to excel.
Rarely before has the Irish scrum looked in such fine health. Having dominated in this area against England, Plumtree’s forwards again stood out versus Italy last weekend.
We’ve been really happy with our scrum,” the former Natal coach says. “We’ve got a really disciplined scrum; we’ve been able to launch from a lot of our scrums in this competition. We’ve conceded very few penalties and free-kicks from our scrum.
“I think referees have been very happy with the way our scrum has been going, it’s been easy to manage. Hopefully that’ll continue.”
Steve Walsh, are you listening?
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The Kiwi match official will have a key part to play in deciding who gets on top at the scrum. In Thomas Domingo, Dimitri Szarzewski and Nicolas Mas, France possess a respectable amount of front row experience, but les Bleus’ scrum struggled badly against Wales and Scotland.
Line-out and maul
Again, these are areas where Ireland have prospered in the tournament so far, even if there were some hiccups against the Italians in Dublin. Devin Toner has emerged as a key figure under Schmidt, and the Leinster man has been superb in the air.
France had major malfunctions with their line-out last week, losing eight of their own 16 throws against Scotland, but Plumtree says the return of Szarzewski at hooker will help to remedy the problem.
“He’s a good thrower and they’ve got a big line-out, a lot of jumpers. I’m sure it was a key focus for them this week and I’m sure they won’t have a meltdown like they did in that area last week. I’m sure they’ve done a lot of work on it.”
As for the maul, Ireland dismantled the Welsh and the Scots in that sector, before using it as something of a decoy against England, often moving the ball away quickly after setting their maul.
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France have done extensive work on defending and attacking mauls in training this week, expecting an onslaught from the Irish forwards there, and Plumtree admits his men are focused on improving their own drive.
“We weren’t overly happy with some of the areas, particularly our line-out drive, last week against Italy. But I’m not saying that all we’re going to do is maul, that’s not what we do.”
Possession and ball in play
Ireland’s tactics against Italy centred around keeping the ball in play for as long as possible, but also maintaining possession. That forced Jacques Brunel’s men into an incredible 245 tackles, and the visitors faded in the final 30 minutes.
While that approach certainly favoured the attacking skills of the likes of Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, similar tactics bring an added danger against the French. Philippe Saint-André’s side may be lacking real structure, but they possess a frightening counter-attack.
Plumtree agrees that Ireland are suited to a high amount of time with the ball in play, but underlines that it’s all about his players keeping hold of the pill and providing security in contact.
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“It’s better that we’ve got the ball than they’ve got the ball, that’s for sure. They’re so dangerous from turnovers, so we’ve got to make sure that we do keep that ball, we do build pressure and get that scoreboard ticking over.
“If we turn ball over from any part of the field, then they’ll come back at us. Joe showed the boys lots of visions of that this week and it’s certainly something we’re going to have to focus on.”
Saint-André’s plan for this game may have been made all the clearer by his naming six forwards on his bench. Guilhem Guirado, Vincent Debaty, Rabah Slimani, Alexandre Flanquart, Sébastian Vahaamahina and Wenceslas Lauret can all offer impact in different areas of forward play.
The French appear intent on taking on the Irish pack, who can rightfully claim to be the most impressive forward unit in the championship up until this point. More than ever, Ireland’s own replacements will be called upon to make a difference.
Plumtree was quick to point out the risk France have opened themselves up to by selecting six forwards on the bench.
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“The 6/2 bench can be quite stressful if you lose a back early on in the encounter, so it’s always a little bit of a risk when you do overload your bench with forwards. That’s their strategy and we’ll see how it goes.”
Any or all of Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy could be integral to this game.
Where do you think this evening’s game will be won and lost? What tactical areas do you see as the main concern for Ireland?