Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Tyrone Howe: Scrums key if Ireland want to floor French

Isaac Boss should be considered for the scrumhalf berth by Declan Kidney for Sunday's clash with France after Tomas O'Leary struggled against Italy last weekend
Isaac Boss should be considered for the scrumhalf berth by Declan Kidney for Sunday's clash with France after Tomas O'Leary struggled against Italy last weekend

I really do not understand what is all the fuss about Ireland’s match against Italy last Saturday.

For me it was nothing short of perfection. I settled myself down onto the sofa, enjoyed a mug of my latest discovery — Chicken Bovril — and watched the first quarter of the game with great expectation.

The next bit sounds like a ‘What Happened Next’ round in A Question of Sport. Only it really isn’t that dramatic. Basically, I nodded off only to wake up just before the last 10 minutes. The best power nap for ages and the best part of the game. By all accounts I was the lucky one.

For those who were unfortunate enough to stay awake and had to endure a ropey 77 minutes from Ireland, the consolation is that the players left with a victory and it surely cannot be as poor this weekend?

Why are we so surprised? This fixture has an increasing habit of being an anticlimax. Last season, the opening match of the Six Nations at Croke Park was equally as soporific.

Yes, Italy were decent, but England will show at Twickenham that Nick Mallett’s men are still a fairly limited bunch. What is far more amazing is players we normally associate with excellence can fall so short of their own and our high standards.

The firestarters Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe were greatly missed, as was a scrumhalf who could get the ball away at a rate of knots.

For me, the biggest call in terms of selection for Declan Kidney is the number nine shirt. Surely it has to change as Tomas O’Leary looks short of top class match fitness, but the alternative is intriguing. Do you go for the physicality of Isaac Boss, the passing ability of Peter Stringer or the halfway house of Eoin Reddan? My choice would be to start with Boss and have the option of Stringer later in the game to up the tempo, when Ireland will hopefully be looking to close out the game, rather than chase a French lead.

The exasperating French played a beautiful tune at times at the Stade de France against Scotland and reminded us of their enormous potential and flair when their heads are switched on.

When they went through the gears France were majestic to watch, with Francois Trinh-Duc’s rifled pass through his legs the pick of the many highlights. Nevertheless, there are clear lessons that, no doubt, Declan Kidney will be stressing to his players.

Firstly, you must protect the ball in possession and not give away cheap turnovers. Secondly, a quality kicking game is needed as the French are up there with the best in terms of counterattacking. Finally, the Italy match could not have thrown up more compelling proof that you have to take your chances.

If Ireland can manage this, they have a realistic chance of success.

I firmly expect that Ireland’s mental state and level of intensity will be unrecognisable from last week.

While they may be current Six Nations Champions and have temporarily silenced their doubters at home, I wonder whether it just wouldn’t be, well, French, if Marc Lievremont’s men came out with a rather laissez-faire attitude this Sunday.

Scotland showed that when you create space and hit those angles at pace, France are vulnerable — they may be different culturally from the other sides in the Six Nations, but share that universal trait that they are capable of mistakes when put under pressure.

What will be completely hands-on will be the scrums and this is the biggest area of concern for Kidney. France after Italy is like falling out with one brother only for a bigger brother to come round the corner. Whether changes are made in the Irish front row or not, it is an enormous challenge. It may well depend as much on the referee’s interpretation as anything else, but the signs are not good. It is becoming increasingly common — survive the scrum and you survive the match.

I’m backing three home wins this weekend, and England to be in the driving seat with their most difficult matches still to come.

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