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Dublin: 15 °C Thursday 27 June, 2019
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Analysis: 5 keys if Joe Schmidt's Ireland are to beat France in Dublin

We look at the kicking game, Bastareaud, the breakdown, France’s maul and Camille Lopez.

THE PRE-MATCH talking has been done, the concerns over Johnny Sexton have been addressed, and it’s time for the rugby to be played.

We’ve outlined some of the important factors in this evening’s clash between France and Ireland in Dublin, with some of them having the potential to be decisive in this Six Nations tie.

Kicking game, as ever

It’s always an important part of any international side’s game plan, but there is a need for even greater accuracy from Ireland in this area of the fixture than usual. Kick too long or ease off on the chase, and France have the back three to punish you severely.

The return of Johnny Sexton should help in terms of garryowens from slightly deeper positions and the wiper kicks in behind the wings, while there will once again be a real focus on what Conor Murray does from the base of the rucks with his box kicking.

Last weekend, Ireland looked to target Andrea Masi with much of their contestable and territorial kicking, and the impression is that Teddy Thomas will be the focus this time around.

Thomas Decision

When Thomas gets the ball in his hands, he is a firecracker of a player, pulling out his goose step, burning defenders and using his sheer power to go through contact.

But the 21-year-old is uncomfortable defensively, particularly in covering back field. Even when he’s in good positions, he often makes poor decisions. Against Australia in the GIF above, he catches before placing his left foot, providing the Wallabies with the lineout throw.

No wing likes the ball kicked over their head, but it’s something Thomas never looks assured in dealing with, as below.

Thomas Drop

Part of the issue is that Thomas is not yet making good reads. That is, he’s sitting back too deep at times when he needs to get up in the defensive line, and then shooting up too soon when there is a need to cover the kick.

It’s an incredibly demanding and under-appreciated part of back three play, and something Thomas will almost certainly get better at, but for now he is providing opposition kickers with early cues.

Thomas Early

We get an example above, as Thomas lines up on the outside edge of France’s frontline of defence, rather than hanging back for a crucial extra split second.

That provides Scotland out-half Finn Russell with a nice open area to kick the ball into and find good field position.

Thomas

Thomas is highlighted in the red circle above, while the green circle provides a suggestion of the depth at which Thomas might have discouraged a kick from Russell before shooting up to join the line if and when Russell opted to pass instead.

Sexton will be on the lookout for these cues all day, not only to find touch but also to force an error from the least experienced back three player on the pitch. Expect Murray to launch a few box kicks in Thomas’ direction too.

The chase will have to be supreme, as Thomas’ ability with ball in hand in space is frightening. Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo will have to be accurate in that regard.

Negating the French maul

Forwards coach Yannick Bru has invested much time into improving France’s maul in the last year or so, and the results have been noticeable since November. French sides have always enjoyed mauling, so it will be no surprise to see them go at Ireland here.

“They’ve mauled really well,” says Ireland captain Paul O’Connell. “I think in recent months, particularly, and last week again their maul was brilliant. They’re a big strong pack.”

Maul

France drew a yellow card for Johnnie Beattie with the powerful effort above, and while it does help to have strong, heavy forwards at maul time, there is also some nice technique involved here.

How do Ireland look to stop it?

It’s a whole number of things,” says O’Connell. “You have to try and put pressure on in the air first and foremost. I think teams have struggled to do that against them, I think they’ve been good on their own lineout.

“Then I suppose it is about trying to get the jumper down and then it becomes a pushing battle. They’ve been very effective in recent months and they’ve drawn penalties from it and big yardage.”

O’Connell points to the battle in the air as a means to halting the French maul, but also warns against “chasing lost causes” in looking to steal Guilhem Guirado and Benjamin Kayser’s throws.

Set Maul

Scotland actually did well to pressure the French throw and steal some possession at the lineout through the Gray brothers last weekend, but there were other instances like that above, when they chase a lost cause at the front.

The intention of picking off Kayser’s dart is laudable, but it’s a bad read as the French go to the tail and it just means the attacking maul has a better chance of setting itself in an organised fashion before meeting real resistance.

Ireland will need to call smartly on their own throw, but equally there is a need for intelligent decision-making at the defensive lineout in terms of snuffing out the French maul.

If and when the French do get set to maul, O’Connell concedes the ‘pushing battle’ will come down on one factor: “attitude.”

Limiting Lopez’s influence

France have found the rounded out-half they have long required in Clermont man Lopez, who was superb for them in November and has been excellent for his club ever since.

The 25-year-old had one of his quieter games last weekend against Scotland, although his place-kicking and lack of errors saw him named man of the match. At his best, Lopez’s fingerprints tend to be plastered all over games.

Lopez Kick

Lopez’s long kicking game is strong, with his left boot well able to find deep corners, but it’s the short and medium-range kicks with which he really excels.

Cross-field punt passes like the one above are increasingly commonplace for the out-half, with his assist for Damien Chouly in Clermont’s home win over Munster in December another prime example.

Lopez also chips well, and dribbles balanced grubber kicks behind the defence, so it’s going to be vitally important for Conor Murray to be sharp in his sweeping in behind, while the back three will be working hard to cover the cross-field option.

“Lopez is a very, very good player,” says Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. “I think he’s an intuitive, instinctive player and that allows him to play in a number of different ways.”

Indeed, Lopez is far from just a kicker of the ball. He likes to get up flat to the gainline when he is provided with quality possession, and his vision, footwork and dart of pace allow him to take half gaps.

Lopez Dart

As well as having line-breaking ability himself, Lopez is a strong distributor, passing well off both hands when he has time to do so. Therein lies the key for Ireland – limiting the time Lopez has to make decision.

Yes, he’s an instinctive player who can react to a man rushing up at him by changing his intention at the last second, but no out-half likes the heat coming on.

Scotland managed to generate some excellent linespeed against the French at times last weekend, forcing Lopez deeper off the gainline when they did so. When the Clermont out-half did get time on the ball, France often came away with three point or good field position at the end of a Lopez-directed attack.

Defence coach Les Kiss will be sending Ireland’s defence out with a reminder to keep their linespeed aggressive and limit Lopez’s influence.

Manage and manipulate Basta

You don’t need us to underline the ball-carrying threat of Mathieu Bastareaud at this stage, with the 120kg centre having proven himself in that department again last weekend.

The Toulon man was the greatest attacking threat to Ireland’s Six Nations hopes in Paris last year, and France are going to look to him in a big way again for this fixture. From a technical point of view, there’s not too much beyond the obvious to say here.

It’s going to take more than one defender to bring ‘Basta’ down at times, but Ireland cannot afford to overcommit to one French attacker consistently. The 26-year-old possesses good handling skills, and is more than capable of shifting the ball if multiple defenders are sitting on him.

Basta

We see the obvious recipe for disaster above, as Ross Ford goes in around Bastareaud’s chest area with his tackle. It’s never going to work out well, and the Scotland hooker duly gets bumped into the deck, leaving France with brilliant front-foot ball to play off.

Out-half Russell was actually the man who led the way for the Scots in tackling Bastareaud, diving in around the knees and ankles to chop the France centre down. It’s a simple formula requiring balls and technical accuracy.

On the other side of the coin, there’s still a sense that Bastareaud can be exploited in defence. Again, if you run directly into him, France’s 13 will dominate the collision, but there is scope for testing Basta’s lateral agility with some decoy lines across him.

Basta Hit

France defend Bastareaud in the 12 channel, with Wesley Fofana swapping out to the 13 channel on defensive set-pieces, as we see above.

This clip demonstrates that running directly into the formidably-proportioned centre is not a good idea, with Beattie even getting an ironic pat on the head for his efforts.

But there’s the hint of a French weakness here too, as Basta and Fofana get typically disjointed.

Gap

This very disjoint is something we pointed out in the build up to last year’s meeting between Ireland and France, although Schmidt’s side never got an opportunity to really test it.

We can see above that there is some distance between Basta and Fofana, which is partly deliberate. Fofana is tasked with shutting down the wide passing option, but even still there is a tendency for Bastareaud to get left behind.

Screen

A screen pass, a rapid tip-on to the arriving blindside wing, whatever it is that Ireland might use, there are chances to manipulate Bastareaud in that 12 channel from set piece, particularly the lineout.

Sensational breakdown

Much of Ireland’s success under Schmidt has been down to their work post-tackle, and even last weekend in Italy when Ireland’s ball carriers were struggling to make the gainline in the first half, their rucking ensured a maintenance of possession.

The French are a far more potent turnover threat on the ground than the Italians, so this is going to be even more important in Dublin today.

Basta Breakdown

Bastareaud is one of the best breakdown centres in the world, providing many moments like the one above. His weight is again useful, but there is real speed in his ability to clamp over the ball, so Ireland will need to arrive early and in numbers.

Captain Thierry Dusautoir is another major threat for the French at the breakdown, consistently hunting from the inside in search of any opportunity to jackal. While the loss of Alexandre Menini is a blow to France’s scrum, the inclusion of Eddy Ben Arous simply adds another turnover specialist.

Dusautoir

In terms of countering those strengths, Ireland have more than enough rucking expertise. Sean O’Brien comes back into the team to aid the momentum of Ireland’s attack, while Jamie Heaslip is usually very busy around the rucks.

Technically, Ireland are as good as anyone, but a real key to their breakdown success will be the preceding carry. If Schmidt’s carriers cannot get beyond the French defence, it makes those rucks a whole lot more difficult.

Either way, Ireland will need to remove the threats as France will repeatedly look to stall Ireland’s attack on the ground.

Ireland

15. Rob Kearney
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best
3. Mike Ross
4. Devin Toner
5. Paul O’Connell
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Marty Moore
19. Iain Henderson
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Isaac Boss
22. Ian Madigan
23. Felix Jones

France

15. Scott Spedding
14. Yoann Huget
13. Mathieu Bastareaud
12. Wesley Fofana
11. Teddy Thomas
10. Camille Lopez
9. Rory Kockott

1. Eddy Ben Arous
2. Guilhem Guirado
3. Rabah Slimani
4. Pascal Papé
5. Yoann Maestri
6. Thierry Dusautoir (captain)
7. Bernard Le Roux
8. Damien Chouly

Replacements:

16. Benjamin Kayser
17. Uini Atonio
18. Vincent Debaty
19. Romain Taofifenua
20. Loann Goujon
21. Morgan Parra
22. Rémi Tales
23. Rémi Lamerat

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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