Tag Archives: Wesley Fofana

Top 14 Preview: Clermont

25924The History

Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne was launched in 1911 by Marcel Michelin, son of André, who founded the Michelin tyre company. The club was intended to provide entertainment for the many workers employed by the organisation. Their story since has been littered with near-misses. ASM did enjoy success in the Challenge Yves du Manoir and Challenge Cup, but they finished runners-up in the French championship ten times before finally winning in 2010.

In the Heineken Cup, Clermont have lost a final, semi-final and a quarter-final in recent years. The common perception is that ASM lack the mental edge to win big games, but their 2010 success has been quickly forgotten. In that same time frame, Toulon have lost four finals and won one trophy, but not once has their winning mentality been questioned. Of course it is the manner of Clermont’s defeats which see them labelled as ‘bottlers’ too, but they will continue to challenge for titles.

The Setting

The city of Clermont-Ferrand sits in the Auvergne region of central France, with a population of 141,000. While it is an industrial area, the city has a growing student population of 30,000 and Clermont’s supporters are amongst the friendliest in the world. The Stade Marcel-Michelin is ASM’s home, with space for 18,030 people. With the stands almost leaning over the pitch, the atmosphere is never anything less than fervent. ASM hold a French record of 60 consecutive victories at home, they simply don’t do losses at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Last Season

ASM v LR

Two superb wins over Leinster have been forgotten amidst Clermont’s end-of-season failure. (c) Andy Patterson.

The campaign promised so much as Clermont played scintillating rugby throughout the season. Top try-scorers by 12 in the Top 14, Vern Cotter’s side topped the regular season table. In the Heineken Cup their 31 tries were unmatched, and they looked like champions-to-be. Everything came unstuck on the home straight though, with the loss to Toulon in the H Cup final followed by a pitiful effort against Castres in the Top 14 semi-final. Flanker Julien Bonnaire summed it up in simple terms: “Let’s call a cat a cat. Last season was a failure. Now we must redeem ourselves.”

Ambitions

ASM approach this season in a strange state following Cotter’s frank criticism of the players and the club’s recruitment policy in the aftermath of the failed season. The New Zealander has agreed to join Scotland at the end of this season, and the impression was that he was attempting to get himself released early by speaking out. However, bridges have apparently been rebuilt and Clermont are focused on winning a trophy. They have the squad to compete on two fronts, but the truly burning desire is Heineken Cup success.

While they have shown a strong tendency to lose high-pressure play-off games, writing Clermont off before the season has even started would be foolish.

The Coach

Bouclier de B.

Cotter is hoping for more days like this one in 2010. (c) Ville de Clermont-Ferrand.

Cotter is a former number eight who played for Counties Manukau as well as four French clubs. His coaching career took in Bay of Plenty and the Crusaders (as forwards coach where he won Super Rugby titles in ’05 and ’06) before Clermont made him head coach for the ’06/07 season. ASM lost the next three Top 14 finals before finally earning a Bouclier de Brennus in 2010. Cotter is as hard-nosed as you would expect from a Kiwi back-row but also encourages his players to offload and attack from their own half.

Cotter’s challenge this season is to ensure that Clermont are better equipped for knock-out games. The sheer quality in their squad means they will feature in the latter stages of both competitions. Pre season at ASM has focused on decision making, demanding that the players work through their options in various match specific scenarios. Cotter told Midi Olympique that ASM “need be capable of better adapting to the context, and if we must, making our plans simpler and more pragmatic.”

Transfer Activity

Clermont were the quietest Top 14 club in terms of transfers this summer, with just three new faces. Having originally agreed a deal to join in June, Mike Delany was drafted in late last season on a medical joker basis and greatly impressed in three starts. Unfortunately, the one-time All Black outhalf has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the opening three months of the season. That meant Clermont had to search for another outhalf, with the experienced Gavin Hume the result.

The 33-year-old South African spent the last nine seasons with USAP, winning a Top 14 title in 2009. Hume has been sharp for ASM in pre season and offers solid back-up to Brock James. The only other addition is scrumhalf Thierry Lacrampe (25) from Castres, who will compete with Ludovic Radosavljevic for a place on the bench behind Morgan Parra. Familiar names leaving Clermont include David Skrela, who drops into the Pro D2 with Colomiers, and Anthony Floch, who joins Montpellier in search of game time.

Key Players

Wesley Fofana is amongst the best centres in world rugby and probably Clermont’s greatest asset. The 25-year-old runs perceptive lines and aided by sizzling pace and a violent fend, the French international is a nightmare for opposition defences. his ability to pick out weak defenders in the defensive line is unrivaled.  While Fofana’s passing game still has some way to go, he is an attacking threat from any situation. Alongside him is captain Aurélien Rougerie, a one-club man and a passionate leader.

Wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga provide a guaranteed supply of tries. Sivivatu was exceptional last season, roaming into midfield and often taking the ball as first receiver. The former All Black has the footwork and power to beat tackles every time he touches the ball. Nalaga is more of a direct proposition, but he is near to unstoppable from close range. In between them, Clermont have the luxury of choosing between Lee Byrne’s kicking game and experience or Jean-Marcellin Buttin’s languid, creative brilliance.

James

Brock James has been the focus of much of the criticism aimed at ASM. (c) Frank Nieto.

Morgan Parra is the archetypal French scrumhalf, directing his forwards, place-kicking and strutting around when he is in control. After ending the season in very poor form, the 24-year-old decided not to tour with France this summer and will benefit from a full pre season schedule. Joining him in the halfback charnière is Brock James, the much maligned Australian. His famous incidences of big-game failure make him an obvious target, but at his best James is a superb outhalf.

Julien Bonnaire remains crucial at the age of 34 through his lineout excellence, work-rate and leadership. Alongside him, number eight Damian Chouly is a strong ball carrier but needs to become more prominent in the high-stake games.

Irish Connection

In a giant tight five featuring French internationals Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser, the key man is Scottish international Nathan Hines. He was certainly among the best locks in Europe last season and would have added greatly to the Lions tour. At 36, the body has started to feel the knocks that little bit more, but Hines never gives anything less than total commitment. Smashing rucks, winning lineouts and shoving at scrum time are the norm for any lock, but what sets Hines apart is his superb handling and passing ability.

Possible Starting XV

15. Byrne/Buttin, 14. Sivivatu, 13. Rougerie, 12. Fofana, 11. Nalaga, 10. James, 9. Parra, 8. Chouly, 7. Vosloo/Lapandry, 6. Bonnaire, 5. Hines, 4. Cudmore, 3. Zirakashvili, 2. Kayser 1. Domingo

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Photos: Andy Patterson, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, Frank Nieto.

The Touchline’s Newcomer Of the Tournament

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Following on from our Player of the Tournament piece, here’s the shortlist for the best newcomer in this season’s Six Nations. The list features two Scots, two English and one player each from France and Wales. Italy’s newcomers failed to make any impact. Ireland had a distinct lack of new faces and plenty of the criticism of Declan Kidney in the aftermath to the capitulation to England will be based on this.

Take a look through the piece, which outlines why each of the six players made it, and make your vote in the poll at the bottom! Leave a comment explaining why you choose that particular player. If you think anyone has been unfairly omitted, let me know in the comments section too.

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David Denton

Denton on a typical surge against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

The powerful No.8 made his debut for Scotland in the World Cup warm-up match against Ireland in August of last year, but missed out on selection for the final squad. His form for Edinburgh since made it impossible for Andy Robinson not to choose him at the base of the scrum for this year’s Six Nations. Born in Zimbabwe and schooled in South Africa, Denton qualifies for Scotland through his mother. He has had an outstanding debut tournament for his adopted country.

Denton’s ball-carrying ability is already world-class. His strength and pace make him a hard man to stop. He relishes the physical battle of contact, and his work-rate is second to none. In fact, Denton made the most carries of any player in the Six Nations with 65. The Edinburgh back-rower has also displayed a nice offloading game, something Scotland need to exploit to better effect. Denton doesn’t shirk defensive responsibilities either, and made some quality steals on the deck. A genuine 2013 Lions contender.

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Wesley Fofana

Fofana in action against Italy. (c) Richard Dunwoody.

The Clermont speedster features in our Player of the Championship poll, and has already picked up a couple of votes. His impact for France saw him finish 2nd in the try-scoring table, with 4 in 5 games. Fofana’s pace and evasiveness make him a nightmare for opposition defences, highlighted by the fact that he beat more defenders than any other player in the Six Nations. He is also a superb finisher. Despite not being very big for an international centre (5’10” and 88kg), Fofana’s power also makes him a strong defender.

The one aspect of the game that the 24-year-old needs to work on is his distribution. Fofana almost never looks for the pass or offload. His confidence in his own ability is commendable, but if he is to continue playing at 12, Fofana must add variety to his game. It’s hard to believe, but the Paris-born back only made 9 passes in the 5 games, and not a single offload. If he can improve these facets of his game, Fofana has the ability to become one of the best centres in the world.

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Alex Cuthbert

French penalty

Cuthbert watches on as Beauxis takes a penalty for France in the Grand Slam game. (c) Matt Appleby.

A lot of the hype about Wales’ backline centres around the freakboy that is George North. On the opposite wing though, Cuthbert has been probably more impressive in this Six Nations. After a quiet opening game against Ireland, when he came off injured at half-time, the Blues winger exploded into life with a brilliant try-scoring performance against Scotland. The giant (6’6″ and 104kg) wide man added further tries against Italy and France, both fantastic scores.

Born and raised in England, the 21-year-old was unusually not an underage international with Wales (he qualifies through his mother). A move to college in Cardiff where he played sevens resulted in a call-up to the Welsh Sevens for the 09/10 and 10/11 IRB World Series. The Blues were impressed enough to bring him onboard in Cardiff, and Cuthbert has rapidly risen to where he is now. His background highlights the need for the IRFU to invest in sevens. Cuthbert is still relatively raw, as shown in the English game when he only touched the ball once. However, his size, pace and finishing ability means he will be worrying Irish defences for years to come.

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Ben Morgan

The Scarlets No.8’s decision to opt for an international career with his native England, rather than Wales, whom he qualifies for on residency grounds, has turned out to be a good one. After impressing off the bench in the first two games against Scotland and Italy, the 23-year-old finally started against Wales. His performance in that game was good, and he has grown in the two games since then. Explosive ball-carrying in Morgan’s main strength, but he also possesses good skills, with his offload for Foden’s try against France a prime example.

Wales, France and Ireland have all struggled to halt Morgan and he has been one of the best No.8s in this year’s Six Nations. He has confirmed a move to Gloucester next season, which will make it easier to link up with the English international camp. There will be a fascinating battle for the Lions’ No.8 jersey over the next year, with Morgan, David Denton, Toby Faletau all strong prospects. Hopefully our own Jamie Heaslip can find some form too.

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Stuart Hogg

Hogg

Hogg wearing the 13 jersey for the Warriors against Leinster this season. His future may lie there for Scotland too. (c) Patrick McGuire.

While Scotland endured a shockingly poor championship, 19-year-old Hogg had a highly promising tournament. Having only made two appearances for the Glasgow Warriors before this season, no one could have predicted his impact. The fullback didn’t even feature in Scotland’s squad for the opening defeat to England, but a brilliant performance, including this magnificent solo try, in Scotland A’s 35-0 thrashing of the English Saxons showed Andy Robinson what he was missing.

Coming off the bench against Wales, Hogg made a big impression with his deft footwork and willingness to attack. He hasn’t looked back since, and turned in his best display as Scotland came close to beating France, scoring his first international try. The quality of Hogg’s attacking play may eventually result in a move to outside centre, where Scotland lack creativity. Wherever he ends up playing, the young Scot is set for a long international career.

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Owen Farrell

Farrell is another who features in The Touchline’s Player of the Championship poll, although he’s not received a single vote at the time of writing. His performance in the St. Patrick’s Day win over Ireland may see that change, as the 20-year-old put in a fantastic display of tactical kicking. After playing the first two  games at outside centre, where he was defensively solid if a little unspectacular, Farrell’s move to outhalf has seen both himself and England flourish. The Saracens youngster has displayed massive amounts of mental strength and plenty of ability.

Farrell’s defensive strength is a huge plus at outhalf, and he has made some big hits over the course of the Championship. His kicking out of hand had been a slight worry, particularly against France, but the win over Ireland yesterday showed that he is accomplished in this area. His place-kicking has been largely excellent too. The one area that Farrell has yet to prove himself is as an attacking force. The English game plan is pretty limited at the moment, so it will be interesting to see how he copes if England look to develop there. It’s been a brilliant debut international campaign for Farrell. 

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Honourable Mentions

Ireland’s Donnacha Ryan is worth a shout here, despite being 28. This season was  the first in which he had an impact on the Six Nations, and the Scotland game was the first time he started a Six Nations game. Declan Kidney’s loyalty to Donncha O’Callaghan was hard to understand and Ryan now deserves a first-choice role.

For France, Yoann Maestri came into the side for their second game against Scotland and retained his place for the remainder of the tournament.The 120kg second-row added plenty of beef to the French pack and excelled defensively. The Toulouse man will look to get on the ball more in the future.

England’s Brad Barritt and Chris Robshaw were both as solid as rock, although very limited in attack. They are perfectly suited to England’s style of play.

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Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohane, Matt Appleby, Patrick McGuire, Richard Dunwoody.

The Touchline’s Player of The Championship

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The RBS Six Nations released the shortlist for their Player of the Championship this week. The winner is to be decided by the public’s online votes, with 12 candidate to choose from. The candidates are the 12 players who were awarded the RBS Man of the Match in each match in the first 4 rounds of the tournament. It’s a silly way to choose the shortlist, as the Man of the Match award is decided by the naturally biased host broadcasters at each match. Check out the official list here.

Julien Malzieu doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near the shortlist, with only one good display against Italy over the course of the Championship. Yoann Maestri made an impact for France, but having him ahead of Richie Gray is ridiculous. Donnacha Ryan did make an impression for Ireland, but he didn’t start the first three games. There’s plenty of holes to be picked in the shortlist, and it’s arguably missing some of the strongest performers of this year’s Six Nations.

So, The Touchline has decided to make our own shortlist for Player of the Championship. 12 players is too many, so we’ve gone for the 7 players who we feel have stood out in the first four rounds. We’ve put a poll in at the bottom of the piece so you can let us know who you would pick! Next week, we’ll reveal who you voted as The Touchline’s Player of the Championship. Please feel free to comment, letting us know why you went for the player you did, or if you would have included other players on the list…

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Rob Kearney

Kearney has made more clean line-breaks than any other player in the Six Nations so far. (c) Ken Bohane.

Kearney has been in superb form for Leinster all season, but he has stepped his game up to new heights in this Six Nations. While there have been questions marks over his covering tackling (Fofana’s try and Richie Gray’s effort), the 25-year-old’s fielding and counter-attacking have been inspirational for Ireland. The fullback has played almost every minute in Ireland’s campaign, only coming off with 8 minutes left against Scotland.

Kearney has looked supremely confident throughout the tournament, and the stats clearly back up the positive impression he has made. With 411, he is top of the ‘metres gained in possession’ stakes. He has made the most clean line-breaks with 6 and he is joint-top of the ‘defenders beaten’ list with George North, both on 15. Every time Kearney touches the ball, he looks like creating something. Hopefully, his confident form continues against England on Saturday.

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Wesley Fofana

With 4 tries in 4 games, Fofana has had a dream start to his international career. The Clermont speedster has come from nowhere this season, taking his chance with his club side during the World Cup, and never looking back. Originally a winger, Fofana’s move to inside centre has been a massive success. His pace and awareness of space make him a constant threat in attack, and while he’s not the biggest man, his natural power and speed make him a competent defender (2 missed tackles from 31 attempts).

Despite Fofana’s excellence in the centre, Philippe Saint-Andre has decided to move him to the wing for this Saturday’s game in Wales. It seems a strange decision, but the 24-year-old did damage there after Clerc’s first half injury against England. Having beaten 14 defenders in 4 games, ‘The Cheetah’ (his nickname in France) will do damage wherever he plays. Keeping George North quiet will be a difficult task, but the French man has passed every other test so far.

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Ritchie Gray

Gray on the way to scoring a brilliant individual try against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

The 6’10” second-row has played every single minute for Scotland in this Six Nations campaign, and has been brilliant in every single one of them. Still just 22, the 20 stone monster gets better with every game. He is a definite 2013 Lion. With his obvious physical advantage, Gray is a lineout king, and has the most number of lineout takes of any player, with 18. While he hasn’t been too prolific with clean steals, he makes opposition ball constantly scrappy out of touch.

Added to that, the Warriors’ second-row has been hugely influential in open play. His athleticism and skills are spectacular for a man of his potentially awkward dimensions. His try against Ireland is an obvious example, and Gray is joint-top of the Scottish clean line-breaks table. His offloading game has been intelligent and accurate too. To top it all off, Gray has yet to miss a tackle in the tournament,  making all 33 attempts. He has been a truly complete performer for Scotland.

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Owen Farrell

The English wonderkid was the source of plenty of hype coming into this tournament and he has lived up to much of it. Starting the first two games at outside centre, the 20-year-old was defensively outstanding if a little unspectacular in attack. His move to outhalf for the Wales and France games have seen him look a lot more comfortable. The entire English game has benefited from having Farrell direct play at 10.

For a young player in his debut international tournament, Farrell’s defensive game has been world-class. He has only missed 2 out of 33 tackles, but it is the power with which he hits that has impresses. His huge tackle on Harinordoquy last weekend was a perfect example. His distribution is steadily improving, and his place kicking has been very good. Kicking out of hand is one area where the youngster needs to improve, but he has plenty of time to do so. Farrell is already a guaranteed first-choice for England after this superb introduction to the international game.

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Sergio Parisse

Parisse scoring against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

It’s pretty much a given that Parisse is included in shortlists like this every single year. The Stade Francais man’ contributions for Italy are always magnificent and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. His frustration at teammate’s poor efforts has been a little more evident this year, but it’s hard to blame him. It would be fascinating to see the No.8 operate within a better team. Imagine him with the Lions next year? He must do so himself. However, Parisse continues to give his best for Italy though.

The 6’5″ back-row has been Italy’s top ball carrier so far this tournament with 40, although Andrea Masi only trails by a single carry. That makes Parisse the 6th most regular ball carrier in the Championship. He has also made 5 turnovers in the 4 games so far. That said, this has not been Parisse’s best ever tournament. Uncharacteristically, he has missed 6 tackles. Still, he has stood out for Italy and is always one of the finest players in the Six Nations.

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George North

It really is hard to fathom the fact that North only turns 20 next month. The Welsh winger is already one of the best wide men in world rugby and could easily become the undisputed number one. At 6’4″, well over 17 stone and with pace to burn, he is a beast of a teenager but that often masks just how good a rugby player he is. While it’s inarguable that North’s physical prowess gives him a huge advantage, he is also an intelligent player with a strong understanding of how he can best use his assets. He comes off his wing to great effect and is always looking for work.

North began the campaign with a brilliant try-scoring display against Ireland. His beautiful offload for Jon Davies’ second try showed his skills at their best. The Scarlets winger hasn’t scored since, but he has been hugely effective with ball in hand. Alongside Kearney, he has beaten the most defenders at 15. Defensively, he really hasn’t been called into action that much but has looked solid on those rare occasions. A definite Lion next year, and a phenomenal rugby talent.

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Stephen Ferris

Ferris has been equally strong in defence and attack this season. (c) Ken Bohane.

Here at The Touchline, we are massive fans of Ferris. After a quiet opening game against Wales, the Ulster man has gone into overdrive with his muscular performances. Earlier in the week, we shared our love for Ferris, so read more about his displays and why he’s on this list here.

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Honourable Mentions: Dan Lydiate, Ross Rennie, David Denton, Alex Cuthbert, Imanol Harinordoquy, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny.

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Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohaneκαρλο.

Ireland Must Target Laidlaw

Greig Laidlaw Edinburgh Captain

Laidlaw, playing at scrumhalf for Edinburgh here, will start at outhalf for Scotland tomorrow. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Despite three loses from three, seemingly everyone is in agreement that Scotland have deserved more in this year’s Six Nations. The 23-17 loss to France in particular saw Scotland play with real attacking punch, offloading at every opportunity. Free-flowing attacking rugby is something that hasn’t been readily associated with Scotland in recent years but some key personnel changes have allowed them to play with a bit more ambition. Outhalf Greig Laidlaw has been a key part of that.

Tomorrow will only be the 26-year-old’s third start, and fifth cap, for Scotland. The Edinburgh halfback has played much of his rugby at scrumhalf and his first cap came there, as a replacement for Mike Blair in 2010. However, Laidlaw’s involvement with the Scottish Sevens side has helped him develop into the exciting attacking outhalf we have seen in recent weeks. His background at scrumhalf is evident in his quality passing, while his time playing sevens is clear in his elusive running game. Add to that competent place-kicking, and Laidlaw has been impressive for the Scottish.

There is one glaring weakness in Laidlaw’s skill set though and that is his defensive game. At just 12st 8lbs (80kg) and 5′ 9″, he is not the biggest guy, especially in comparison with some of the monsters in international rugby. When he plays at scrumhalf, Laidlaw has far less front-on tackles to make and his size is really not an issue. At outhalf though, Laidlaw has to deal with a lot more traffic. He never looks confident in the tackle.

Try for Dougie Howlett

Doug Howlett goes through a Laidlaw tackle to score for Munster this season. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Ireland must be merciless in their targeting of Laidlaw on Saturday. We have to get our strong carriers in Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Donnacha Ryan running at the outhalf whenever they get a chance. Laidlaw often tends to hang out on the wings in phase play as Scotland defend. If that is the case at the Aviva, then we must work the ball wide to give Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble one-on-ones with him.

Wesley Fofana’s try for France in that 23-17 win showed Ireland the way. Laidlaw’s opposite number, Francois Trinh-Duc, far from a physical specimen himself, bounced Laidlaw into the ground to put France on the front foot inside the Scottish 22. From that position, Fofana is hard to stop. Laidlaw’s missed tackle was the key though, putting Scotland into a defensive scramble. If Laidlaw does defend in this channel then Ireland have to repeatedly search him out.

It’s an obvious point to make, but France failed to exploit the weakness to it’s full extent. Apart from that missed tackle, Laidlaw only had to make 3 other tackles in his 50 minutes on the pitch. Wales were a little more ruthless, forcing the outhalf to tackle 10 times, of which he missed 3. It’s a basic tactic to target certain players when you have the ball, but it’s extremely rare to have a player as defensively weak as Laidlaw playing international rugby, so it needs to be highlighted.

Laidlaw

Laidlaw, kicking for Edinburgh here, has scored 18 points for Scotland in this year's Six Nations. (c) Craig Marren.

The breathless tempo of international rugby can make it difficult to pick out individual players in the opposition defence. Ireland have to make it a team effort, communicating to each other where the outhalf is in the defensive line. Just as countless teams have targeted Ronan O’Gara over the years, we must now do the same to Laidlaw.

*Where else do you see the key battles taking place tomorrow? Do you think Scotland are a real threat to Ireland or do you expect a comfortable win? Comment below with all your views on tomorrow’s game…

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Photos courtesy:  Craig Marren, Ivan O’Riordan.

France Make Two Changes

Clément Poitrenaud B&W

Poitrenaud comes in at fullback. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Philippe Saint-André has made two changes to the France team ahead of Sunday’s rescheduled Six Nations clash with Ireland. Maxime Medard has been ruled out with the knee injury he suffered during the 23-17 victory over Scotland. His Toulouse teammate Clément Poitrenaud comes in at fullback. The only other change sees Julien Bonnaire promoted to the starting lineup in place of Louis Picamoles.

That switch means Imanol Harinordoquy reverts to his natural position at No.8, with Bonnaire starting at openside. With Medard out of the squad, Perpignan centre Maxime Mermoz is included on the bench. Saint-André has resisted the urge to include Lionel Beauxis at outhalf from the beginning, despite Francois Trinh-Duc’s lack of form in the opening two fixtures.

How do you rate this French team from what you have seen so far? Do you think they were lucky to beat Scotland last weekend? Which players do you think will be vital for them? Can Ireland win in Paris? Comment below with your opinions!

France team to face Ireland:

1. Jean-Baptiste Poux (Toulouse)

2. Dimitry Szarzewski (Stade Français)

3. Nicolas Mas (Perpignan)

4. Pascal Papé (Stade Français)

5. Yoann Maestri (Toulouse)

6. Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse, capt.)

7. Julien Bonnaire (Clermont)

8. Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz)

9. Morgan Parra (Clermont)

10. Francois Trinh-Duc (Montpellier)

11. Julien Malzieu (Clermont)

12. Wesley Fofana (Clermont)

13. Aurelien Rougerie (Clermont)

14. Vincent Clerc (Toulouse)

15. Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse)

Subs

16. William Servat (Toulouse) 17. Vincent Debaty (Clermont) 18. Lionel Nallet (Racing-Métro) 19. Louis Picamoles (Toulouse) 20. Julien Dupuy (Stade Français) 21. Lionel Beauxis (Toulouse) 22. Maxime Mermoz (Perpignan).

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Photo courtesy: Pierre-Selim.

Scout’s Report: France

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.

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France

France were the victors in this fixture last season, 25-22 in the Aviva. (c) Liam Coughlan.

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.

Conor Murray could have a key role to play around the fringes of the breakdown. (c) Ken Bohane.

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.

ST vs USAP - Louis Picamoles

Toulouse's Picamoles is one of the danger men for France. (c) Pierre-Selim.

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.

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Highlights of the four tries from France’s win over Italy:

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Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohane, Pierre-Selim, Liam Coughlan.