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Analysis: Ireland's scrum will get a huge test against monstrous French pack

The Irish forwards face their biggest challenge yet this weekend.

IT’S BEEN JUST over one year to the day since Tadhg Furlong had arguably his toughest day in an Irish shirt.

However, since Ireland’s defeat to France in Paris 12 months ago the rise of the Leinster man has been remarkable, and this Saturday provides the 24-year-old with an enormous opportunity to prove he’s arrived, and stare down the French scrum that gave him such difficulty last year.

So far in the tournament the Irish scrum has been comfortable. Against Scotland they dominated, despite the remarkably low number of scrums in the game, just six in total. In comparison, the win against Italy saw that total matched in the first 11 minutes, with 18 over the course of the game.

Ireland did concede a couple of penalties in the later scrums in Rome, with both appearing to come on Jack McGrath’s side, but the ease at which Ireland scrummaged in the opening half ensured constant clean ball to a backline who were taking every opportunity to have a cut.

Providing a platform

Before the game we highlighted Andrea Lovotti as someone who would try to make things very messy for Furlong, and the greatest compliment you can pay to Furlong’s performance is that his side of the scrum barely moved an inch in either direction.

The early drives were all about Cian Healy, who’ll have been very pleased with the impact he made after being given a rare start.

On the opening scrum, he took full advantage of Lorenzo Cittadini’s poor leg positioning.

The Italian veteran often tries to get too low to the ground, by placing his feet too far back from his body. As we can see below, Healy has the ideal balance, with his hips at a right angle, and knees bent at 120 degrees. In contrast, those angles are much wider for Cittadini, which severely limits his power.

1 Cittadnin setup

And we can see how once Healy exerts some pressure, he walks through Cittadini with ease. An early penalty for Ireland.

1 full

Minutes later we had a similar situation. Again, Cittadini sets up with his feet too far back from his body.

2 Cittadini setup

And once the drive comes on from Healy, he’s forced to dig in his heels and lock out his body.

2 Cittadini legs

Eventually the pressure tells, and because of his footwork, he has no power and eventually slips. Luckily, the ball was present for Italy and they were allowed to play on.

2 Cittadini down

The Italians soon recovered and stopped going backwards but they couldn’t trouble the Irish, who continued to opt for the scrum following a series of penalties.

And while Ireland weren’t marching Italy back either, they were using the clean ball to launch attacks, and try out some training ground moves. Sometimes, less is more.

One great example came on 24 minutes, where we can see how Paddy Jackson plays a small inside ball to Garry Ringrose, who in turn finds Simon Zebo after he had crept back towards the touchline.

8 full

Zebo’s break brought Ireland deep inside the 22, and after several phases Keith Earls touched down in the corner.

Fighting the pressure

There were occasions when Italy had a cut, and it took some good technique and teamwork to prevent it from causing damage.

Early in the second half, Lovotti managed to get in under the chest of Furlong and drive in at him on the angle, but a combination of Furlong’s strength and the supportive drive of Devin Toner kept the scrum stable.

If we look below, we can see how Lovotti steps up and into Furlong, getting his head right under his chest.

10 lovotti

But despite this, Furlong just about keeps his side of the scrum up. A big slap on the back should go to Toner, who manages to stay straight and help Furlong recover. In the clip below, watch the feet of Toner, as he keeps his toes rooted into the ground. One small step in any direction, and this scrum more than likely crumbles.

10 full

Furlong has become an incredibly difficult man to budge, and while he’s obviously a physical presence, his technique is also spot on.

In this clip below we can see how the Italians are pumping their legs trying to force Ireland backwards, but Furlong’s position doesn’t change an inch. He keeps his feet just over shoulder-width apart, with just his front studs locked into the pitch, which helps his balance.

11 Furlong initial

Let’s also give Simone Favaro credit for his unique way of stopping Conor Murray…

11 murray.gif

French depth

When it comes to scrummaging, the current French team are in a different class to what Ireland have faced so far.

Scotland are suffering from the losses of WP Nel and Alasdair Dickinson, and while Italy are tricky, they don’t pose the same threat that the huge French pack bring.

At tighthead, Guy Noves has been opting for brawn over brain, choosing the enormous Uini Atonio to start over the smarter scrummager Rabah Slimani.

However, it’s a tactic that’s been working for him so far. Against Ireland last year, he held Slimani and Eddy Ben Arous in reserve until the early stages of the second half, and they were rampant when they came off the bench.

While France have scrummaged strongly against England and Scotland, their sheer size advantage — particularly on Atonio’s side of the scrum — has caused them to be pinged several times for early shoving.

On four occasions against England, they were punished for it, with the final two of those resulting in penalties rather than free-kicks. One of those penalties was kicked for three points, while the other struck the post.

When Atonio combines his size with technique, he’s a very difficult man to stop though.

In this scrum against Scotland, he gets his angles absolutely perfect, with his 90-degree bend at the hips and 120-degree bend at the knees.

4 atonio body

He gets a nudge on Allan Dell, who starts to pop his backside out in the hope of turning the scrum.

But Atonio maintains that straight body the whole way through, eventually splitting Dell from his hooker Fraser Brown.

4 atonio body 2

And not only is his positioning perfect, but his footwork is also spot on. In the clip below we can see how he marches forward through Dell, all the while ensuring that each step comes off his front studs. His heels never touch the ground.

4 atonio feet

Atonio is all about power, while their other option Slimani is more subtlety and angles. Those angles aren’t always legal though.

One particular example from their meeting with Scotland stands out. If we watch the clip in full, we can see how France stroll through the Scots almost at will. But pay close attention to Scotland’s loosehead Gordon Reid (with the shaved head), who is absolutely furious when he sees Jaco Peyper signal advantage to France.

13 Reid furious

And if we freeze it, we can see why. Slimani has sheared so far across Reid that he’s actually now in between Scotland’s hooker and loosehead, as opposed to where he started, in the red circle.

13 slimani shear

In the last three meetings between Ireland and France, loosehead Ben Arous has proved to be an incredibly good scrummager, giving Mike Ross real trouble in 2015, before coming off the bench to do the same to Furlong in Paris last year.

Ben Arous missed the opening two matches of the Six Nations due to injury, but replaces Xavier Chiocci in the squad.

It’s unclear whether he’ll go straight into the starting team, because Toulouse’s Cyril Baille has probably been the tournament’s best loosehead in the opening two rounds.

If Baille starts, then Furlong will have a tough contest on his hands. Baille likes to attack the outside shoulder of his opponent, so Furlong will have to keep a strong, long bind, trying to drop his left shoulder down.

Against Scotland, he gave Zander Fagerson all sorts of trouble. In this early scrum, we can see how Fagerson has his head higher than his hips, and this leaves a huge target for Baille to attack.

2 baille

Unfortunately, that was a short replay from a reverse angle, so we don’t get to fully see the extent of the damage he does. In real time Fagerson’s side of the scrum seems to cave dramatically, with Peyper awarding France a penalty.

2 full

Early in the second half Baille walks through Fagerson again, and this time we can really appreciate it.

He starts out with the ideal technique, with his back parallel to the ground.

6 baille initial

And as he drives, he works his core, making sure that his head and hips remain in that position.

6 full

From behind the goal, we can get a great look at it. All French players seem to be moving square and straight, but what’s noteworthy is just how easily the Gray brothers — Richie wearing No 4 and Jonny No 5 – are sent walking backwards, if we compare it to the way Devin Toner dug in his feet earlier.

Whether Baille or Ben Arous starts on Saturday doesn’t really matter, because you’ll still have to deal with the other for 30 minutes or so.

Winning the scrum battle isn’t important on Saturday, because even gaining parity at the set-piece will leave Joe Schmidt’s side in a good position to get the result they need.

But with the size of this French pack, parity will still take a monumental effort.

Source: The42 Rugby Show/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Neil Treacy

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