In what will be a regular feature on The Touchline during the Six Nations, Scout’s Report discusses what we can expect from Ireland’s next opponent. We look at France’s performance against Italy and try to pick out their strengths and weaknesses ahead of the game with Ireland on Saturday.
France scored four tries as they beat Italy 30-12 in Stade de France last Saturday. However, the scoreline and number of tries is misleading in terms of how the game actually played out. Italy enjoyed a large amount of possession and territory, particularly in the first half when most of the rugby was played inside the French half of the pitch. So why was it that Italy were able to keep their hands on the ball for such long periods?
One of the major reasons was the French defence. Whether it was a tactical decision, or simply the lack of aggression which Philippe Saint-André has highlighted since the game, France rarely competed at the breakdown against Italy. Instead, one-off tacklers made their hits and the rest of the team fanned out in the defensive line. In today’s international game, where we’re used to teams making every effort to steal or slow down opposition ball at ruck time, it was an odd sight.
Indeed, France seemed happy to let Italy retain possession. The Italians’ cluelessness in using it justified the French style of defence. With just one tackler on the deck, and often three or four Italians going in to seal the ruck, France usually had numbers up in defence. This allowed them to get up fast on the outside and shut down the Italian options.
So if France employ a similar defensive set up against Ireland, how can we break it down? With the likes of Rougerie and Fofana getting up fast in midfield it can often seem like the only option is kicking the ball away. Last Saturday, the weakness in France’s defence lay close to the rucks. With their line up quickly out wide, the defenders around the fringes were noticeably slower.
Italy failed to expose this weakness. New coach Jacques Brunel has emphasised his desire for Italy to play a more expansive style of rugby. That’s great, but last Saturday it lost the game for Italy. Brunel’s side consistently sought to move the ball into wide channels, but France’s advantageous numbers in defence forced Italian errors, two of which resulted directly in French tries.
Italy’s scrumhalf Edoardo Gori gave a brief glimpse of what Italy should have been doing early in the second half. He picked quick ball from the base of a ruck and ran at the defensive pillar. Luke McLean came off his wing, ran a lovely line off Gori’s outside shoulder and the scrumhalf slipped McLean through for a clean line-break. Minutes earlier, the Italian forwards had made good yardage through strong, aggressive carries off Gori, close in to the rucks. Late in the game, replacement 9 Fabio Semenzato made plenty of headway with his snipes around the fringes, but it was too late for Italy by then.
With Italy enjoying lots of possession, where did those four French tries come from? This is where the true strength of this French team lies. The first try saw the Italian defence give Aurelien Rougerie too much space and he burst through the line and around fullback Andrea Masi. The second came from an Italian scrum on halfway, as France came up with a huge drive for a turnover. No. 8 Louis Picamoles’ good work was followed by a breathtaking individual run from Julien Malzieu (check the video at the bottom of this piece).
France’s third came after a misdirected Kris Burton pass was intercepted by Wesley Fofana, allowing Francois Trinh-Duc to chip ahead and resulting in Vincent Clerc touching down. The final score by Fofana saw him beat McLean one-on-one with his speed to get outside, then strength to fend him off. All four tries were examples of the brilliance of France’s individuals. They have players who will punish any mistake.
Saturday’s win over Italy didn’t see any fantastic team work or intelligent system of attack from the French. Often, they actually struggled to put together good passages of play and go beyond 6 or 7 phases. They relied on their strong ball carriers to individually get over the gainline. Ireland’s defence will have to be far more aggressive than against Wales. For Wales’ George North, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau, France have their own explosive big men in Malzieu, Rougerie and Picamoles. Ireland have to get off the defensive line explosively.
Where else can France be targeted? Their restarts were appalling against Italy, both receiving and taking. The French chase was non-existant on Trinh-Duc’s drop-offs, when he actually got them on the field. Receiving drop-offs, France seemed genuinely uninterested in securing the ball. The likes of Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney excel at retrieving restarts and must be used for this purpose.
France’s lineout stuttered against the Italians too, losing three of their own throw-ins. Saint-Andre has made four changes up front, but Ireland must go after the French here. Defensively, the French maul was very weak. Italy made some great gains there, and should have looked to it more. Again, Brunel’s game plan counted against his team. The French constantly competed in the air on Italy’s throw, often with two pods going up. This meant that Italy’s maul could get a good early rumble forward, and Ireland should look to do the same.
Obviously, we will see a more aggressive and urgent French performance on Saturday, as demanded by Saint-André. Their restarts and lineouts are something that will most likely be improved be a better attitude. If they decide to employ a similar defensive pattern, then Ireland will certainly make better use of the possession than Italy did. Defensively, Ireland cannot afford to give the French individuals space or opportunity. Kidney’s should travel to Paris knowing that this French team is beatable.
Highlights of the four tries from France’s win over Italy:
Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Pierre-Selim, Liam Coughlan.