Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Six Nations: France will punish a slow start from Ireland

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton during a training session at Carton House, Co Kildare.
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton during a training session at Carton House, Co Kildare.

"What did you say at half-time?" It is a staple of the post-match press conference, a go-to query designed to bring outsiders into the dressing-room's inner sanctum and as predictable as "who are you wearing?" on the Oscars red carpet.

Nonetheless, its position at the top of the rugby iPod's 'most-played' list does not detract from the question's relevance.



It got another airing in the aftermath of Ireland's 42-10 victory over Italy at the weekend after the home side's level of performance increased by about 40pc in the second period, just as the Italians were heading in the opposite direction.



However, this weekend's assignment opens an entirely different perspective. History has proven that half-time speeches against France away from Dublin may inspire face-saving exercises, but the result has already been determined, and any Irish talk of "winning the second half" is rendered inconsequential by French indifference.



The most celebrated occasion occurred under Eddie O'Sullivan in 2006 when Ireland came back from a 29-3 half-time deficit to threaten a remarkable comeback victory until France woke up and pulled away for a 43-31 win, sparking talk of the players taking over during the interval (hotly disputed within the camp).



And it is not just the Six Nations - in seven meetings outside Dublin since Ireland's last win in Paris in 2000, incorporating two World Cup encounters in 2003 and 2007, the Irish have never led at half-time (see panel).



Throw in the World Cup warm-up defeat in Bordeaux last August when Ireland won the second half 9-6 after trailing 12-3 at the break, and that is eight from eight.



Between his work with the U-19s and Munster, Ireland coach Declan Kidney knows what it takes to win in France and, although quietly satisfied with the improvement and margin of victory on Saturday, he is aware that it counts for nothing if Ireland start slowly again.



In their last three internationals, against Wales in the World Cup and Six Nations, and against Italy, Kidney's side have taken time to get going. If it happens again on Sunday, France could run amok. So, how do Ireland get over their first-half blues?



When Scotland were threatening victory over Philippe Saint-Andre's side in Murrayfield, it was sparking a 'this would be a bad result for Ireland in terms of a backlash' reaction but, in reality, it wouldn't have mattered a whit.



France could beat Scotland by 20 or lose by 20 and there would still be no indication as to how it would affect their performance next time out.



It was always thus, the World Cup providing recent evidence when France lost to Tonga in the pool stages before progressing to a final they would have won had certain decisions fallen their way.



The mercurial side to French rugby has always created an air of mystique around their international side and, in the era before extensive video analysis, unfamiliar names like Sebastien Viars and Richard Castel would appear out of nowhere to garrotte Irish ambition before vanishing just as quickly.



Irish sides, particularly in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, used to be in awe of their opponents, while the blazers saw the trip to Paris as a 'God help us' exercise on the pitch and a hell of a jolly off it (the players famously had to carry their own bags up the stairs in their hotel in the mid-1990s when the lifts were crammed with officials and their wives).



Even though recent results create their own psychological pressure, that mystique should be shattered now. France have an exceptional pool of talent and the likes of Dusautoir, Harinordoquy, Servat, Clerc and Malzieu have few to match them in the world game, but they are not unfamiliar.



Kidney's men know from the Heineken Cup and Grand Slam-sparking victory in 2009 that they are not invincibles. So, have at them.



If there was one defining characteristic to France's win in Murrayfield last weekend, it was their physical superiority.



The French did not play well but when they needed to pull out a try, they turned on the power. Both Francois Trinh-Duc and Julien Malzieu dropped the shoulder and ran over their would-be tacklers in the build-up to the touchdowns by Wesley Fofana and Maxime Medard in classic bully-boy fashion.



They also 'monstered' the Euan Murray-less Scottish scrum, while their ferocity in the tackle (when they were tuned in) and clean-out gave France presence in defence and quick ball in attack.



The professional era has seen Ireland develop a physical presence, and the days of Irish players glancing fearfully across the tunnel at some Gallic ogre wishing there were a beanstalk to climb down are long gone.



The Irish forwards may lack the bulk of their opponents but they are not small and have faced down giant French packs at club level, while their scrum has also improved significantly.



It is not so much about size as about the intensity they bring into contact, particularly at the breakdown - muscle up here from the start and it's game on.



It is a word more commonly associated with French players than Irish, particularly when Ireland are missing their most feted magician Brian O'Driscoll whose Parisian feats are the stuff of legend.



This French side is not short on gifted footballing talents and if they get their dander up in front of their home crowd, tries will inevitably flow as the roar of the home support cascades down from the stands.



However, Ireland have their own flair to call on in a skilful back-line which hasn't always had the opportunity to show off its ability and if they can start to play off Rob Kearney's runs from deep and take a straighter line in possession - rather than the diagonal slide which has been cutting down their space so far - then they can certainly hurt this French defence.



There is, obviously, a risk attached to going at the French from the off but the Irish prerogative here is, surely, not to contain but to impose - particularly as the containment approach has not worked in the past and cutting loose in the second half has yielded dividends, albeit in a losing cause.



Ireland's need to get over their first-half failings away to France is overwhelming, and they undoubtedly have the capacity. The problem is that it may still not be enough.



We shall see, but not being out of the game or even leading at the interval, for once, couldn't hurt.

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