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Rugby World Cup: George Hook - Joe Schmidt's men lack power and guile to out-muscle French

By George Hook

Published 09/10/2015

Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell with head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell with head coach Joe Schmidt

There is a sense of fear abroad that this is a re-run of 2007. The comparisons are difficult to ignore. Once again the IRFU is stampeded into contract negotiations before the coach's biggest test. The warm-up goes badly, average countries prove difficult, and it all goes down to the wire with a team plainly not in the best of form.

Is that unfair to Joe Schmidt? Perhaps, but Eddie O'Sullivan's CV was at least as good before he went to France eight years ago. Stuart Lancaster at England lost his way because he picked the wrong fly-half, ignored a quick number 9 and had a muddled midfield.

Schmidt has done two of those. Ireland has no cutting edge in midfield and his preference for Conor Murray over Eoin Reddan is difficult to understand. Murray has always been a poor decision-maker, a bad kicker and a slow passer. He reached his nadir against Italy when all those faults were in evidence.

When Warren Gatland delivered his assessment of Ireland's attacking strategy as "too narrow", it was dismissed because of the source of the criticism.

It has been plain to see in every game in this tournament that Ireland play between the 15-metre lines, reducing the pitch to just 40 metres and making it easy for teams to defend. Italy proved the point.

Every Irish player cuts inside to seek the safety of a support player, like a rabbit seeking the security of the burrow.

The Irish game plan is predictable, cautious and boring. The supporters cling to the belief that the coach has something up his sleeve for Sunday. If he has he is a magician and the rabbits will have to come out of the hat rather than in to the burrow.

Time was, going to see France play a rugby test was the equivalent of a steamy night between the sheets.

The French, long-time Casanova's of the international rugby world, used to have a wonderful ability to leave their audience flummoxed, exhilarated and breathless in equal measure.

In the good old days, France would regularly bring gasps from the watching crowd with a mere shift of a centre's hips or a flick of a fly-half's wrists.

The French invented counter-attacking rugby and their reputation for the unpredictable and the beautiful preceded them. Not any more. Today's France is a bumbling giant. Heavy breathing, clumsy in movement and over-reliant on size and strength to bash up the opposition.

Where once cunning and guile dominated the French attack, now they simply steamroll over their opponents. And it certainly isn't pretty to watch.

Last week's flat performance against Italy has been typical of the Irish back-row's sterile influence in this competition. In a more competitive squad Jamie Heaslip would be worried about his selection.

Against Italy the watching media were reduced to the great catch-all that "he did a lot of unseen work". If there was a video session this week Ireland's number 8 could study Sergio Parisse with profit.

Meanwhile, Sean O'Brien is a shadow of his former self and is predictable in the extreme. Defenders know his modus operandi and he is cut down before he can generate forward momentum. Sadly injuries have taken a heavy toll on a player that put his body on the line every time he took the field.

We know, for the most part, what France will bring this weekend. Ireland can expect a battle up front and a stern examination of their discipline. This match could be decided by kicks at goal, so Ireland must improve their penalty count from Italy last Sunday.

Freddie Michalak remains the great imponderable in Phillipe Saint-Andre's selection and his performance, or lack thereof, could go a long way towards deciding the outcome. Michalak can be breathtaking on his day, but those 'days' have come with increasing irregularity over the past few years.

The 32-year-old fly-half is a throwback to the old France traditions of the past, where strategy makes way for instinct and the play-book is torn up before kick off. Should Michalak and Wesley Fofana hit form on Sunday, France will be extremely difficult to beat.

Tactically, Ireland are incapable of out-muscling their bigger opponents, so Schmidt will have to find a way around the France defence. Sexton is Ireland's best attacking general. He must be allowed to control the game.

This is it for Ireland's World Cup ambitions. Victory would mean a tough but passable examination against Argentina in the quarter final. Defeat would hand Ireland over to a mauling by New Zealand.

France are big and powerful and they typically reserve their best rugby for this tournament. Three times out of seven attempts they have reached the final. This could be their year to upset the odds and go all the way.

Saint Jude may be Ireland's best chance.

Belfast Telegraph

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