Lynne Cantwell: Sexton shines, French offloads and a Perpignan test

Our Six Nations columnist looks at how Ireland can deal with the French offload threat.

ONE OF THE mantras in French rugby, and particularly in Toulouse, is vivre le ballon, giving life to the ball.

That is most obvious in the French penchant for offloading out of contact. Last weekend against Italy there were 15 offloads from Guy Novès’ side. They’ve set their stall out to a degree and it’s exciting for Six Nations rugby that the new head coach is staying true to that philosophy.

Jared Payne Source: James Crombie / INPHO Source: James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland women’s internationals Paula Fitzpatrick and Heather O’Brien have been playing with Toulouse this season and their main observation is that French players are openly ruck averse, they despise that option; everything is aimed at keeping the ball alive.

Joe Schmidt and his Ireland team know those offloads are coming tomorrow in Stade de France, but how do they deal with them?

Simple and effective things first, the man-and-ball tackle is one way to prevent the offload, but you need to identify the players who do offload when choosing which defensive tactic to use. The mindset is one of awareness. Naturally, not becoming obsessed with offloads is important, because that runs the risk of freeing up players further out the attacking line.

Maxime Médard had four offloads last week, the explosive Yacouba Camara had two after coming off the bench, hooker Guilhem Guirado had two and wing Virimi Vakatawa threw one special offload around the corner in the 18th minute after intelligently drawing two players towards him.

Ireland will be mindful of those players and others like Jonathan Danty.

Fundamentally, an aggressive defensive line speed is the most effective way of dominating a collision. If an attacker has time to gain speed before contact, they have more opportunity to dominate the collision and therefore get their hands free to offload.

If the offload is to happen, the support defender is of central importance in negating its effectiveness. When you’re defending against a team that commonly offloads and you’re the lateral supporting defender next to the tackle, you’ve got to read the play accurately and produce your response quickly.

As a support defender, your first step will not be to go in and become the pillar laterally, beside the forming ruck. Instead, you’ll read the tackle contest to decide the next thing to do. If the offload is attempted, the lateral defender can slot in behind the collision to tackle the support runner.

Let’s say Jamie Heaslip is tackling Vakatawa and CJ Stander is beside Heaslip in the defensive line.

France’s Virimi Vakatawa Vakatawa will look to get his hands, or just one hand, free in the tackle. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Heaslip’s defensive body language might show that he’s heading into a leg tackle and Stander may read that the ball is going to be kept alive by Vakatawa. Stander’s movement is not to go in and be the pillar beside Heaslip laterally.

Instead, Stander’s role is to step behind Heaslip, as such, to be there if the offload goes,  so he can swallow the attack by hitting that support attack player. There are a couple of options but all are based on what you assess as play unfolds. Your defensive unit, usually working in threes, react to each other to negate the threat.

Most teams will offload only when they get right in behind the gainline, when they’ve won the initial collision and are moving forward, but France will actually offload even when moving backwards, as we saw Médard and Guirado do against the Italians.

Ireland can capitalise on this once it’s recognised by the defence. As already mentioned, if you are the support defender and you read that France are offloading backwards, reacting by blitzing up hard on the next player will stifle the attack and stop the attacking momentum.

France are an incredibly difficult team to play against once they gain momentum. Conversely, if you manage to interrupt their attempts they often quit.

The offload and Ireland have an interesting relationship. Schmidt’s men made one offload against Wales last weekend, a lovely effort from Jared Payne, but there were other little glimpses of positivity in this general area.

Last year, Irish rugby media seemed transfixed on, ‘why don’t Ireland offload?’ This question caught on and as is often the case, arguments and truisms tend to grow momentum. Before long, everyone believes this to be the key reason when Ireland don’t play well.

It’s not just the offload, it’s the players’ intent to win the fight to get behind the defender by using their feet, then getting their hands free to look for support options.

Jared Payne Payne has offloading quality. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

In last week’s column, I wrote about hoping that Ireland show more invention and creation in their attack, that there would be evidence of more of an awareness from Schmidt’s backs as to one-on-one possibilities and what that can lead to.

Again, it’s worth stressing that this is not about Ireland dramatically altering or changing the way they attack, merely an important tweak in mindset.

Ireland under Schmidt define strict roles, with strict parametres, but I think a bit of flexibility of those roles, as we saw glimpses of against Wales, is hugely encouraging. The unpredictability of an attack makes it more difficult to defend against.

Take for example that Payne offload. Off an initial lineout platform, Keith Earls puts his hand up as first receiver in what is an unstructured situation. He lures Jamie Roberts towards him, with Payne reading it brilliantly and taking a lovely inside pass to make the half break.

Last season, Ireland might have died there in that tackle as Scott Baldwin scragged Payne. Instead, we saw Heaslip running a brilliant trail line off Payne to accept the offload.

Earlier in the game, in the ninth minute, Ireland counter-attacked out of their own 22 after Jack McGrath forced Gareth Davies to spill the ball. One quick ruck and Johnny Sexton moved the ball to Henshaw, who shifted it again to Simon Zebo.

Zebo was dragged down by a great Taulupe Faletau tackle, but there was Sexton on his inside shoulder, screaming for an offload. It didn’t happen, but I think moments like these are positive signs.

I thought Sexton was excellent last weekend and it’s another really encouraging sign before Paris tomorrow. You can see from the get-go when Johnny’s playing well and is positively engaged in the game, although that’s always the intention.

Jonathan Sexton beats Jonathan Davies Sexton was in excellent form last weekend. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

He was taking the ball to the gainline last weekend and putting people into space. I liked that he wasn’t the first receiver as often as he usually is, which is part of the game plan, but is also a reflection on how the back row and front five worked into better positions to take balls off Conor Murray.

It didn’t seem that Sexton was first receiver as often as he has been before. It makes Ireland’s attack less predictable and it also meant that when he did get his hands on the ball, it was a bit more inventive, a bit more exciting.

His vision and skill to find Andrew Trimble when he broke the line on first-phase ball in the 64th minute was world class and only a glimpse of what Sexton has in buckets.

Defensively, I felt last week that Wales would go wide aggressively and I thought Ireland coped well when that happened. Andrew Trimble was outstanding and if you reverse back to Argentina in the World Cup, his defensive efforts would have been incredibly useful.

Trimble and now Dave Kearney over on the other wing will be hugely important against the French this weekend as Schmidt frees them to blitz up at times and cut off those wide channels.

As well as pressing in defence with more pace and intent than before, Ireland drifted quite well when they did start narrow in defence. I believe that Payne is a brilliant communicator and instils a lot of confidence in the defence around him with that communication.

I have to admit he makes me nervous at times because he angles his hips laterally as he drifts but, once he can square up when needed, he’ll keep my nerves at bay.

Every outside centre has different little habits of this nature. Payne seems to expose his inside shoulder, which could be threatening from the point of view of facing France, with Vakatawa and others having that strong step to go back inside.

In terms of Ireland’s chances of winning this weekend, I do have confidence.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt needs an Ireland win in Paris. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

I felt there was a lot of emphasis put on Italy last weekend in Paris, that they let it slip and Sergio Parisse shouldn’t have taken a drop goal, but when I looked back I thought France missed so many opportunities. They were actually quite poor and never should have allowed Italy to be in such close contention.

I do think France may rise to the occasion, but I don’t think it will be for 80 minutes.

It will also be fascinating to see how the women’s team fare in Perpignan tomorrow night, after a dominant 21-3 win at home against Wales last weekend.

Whatever about their talk of inexperience and changes coming into this championship, there’s a serious group, more than a core group, in that Ireland squad who know how Test rugby works. They’re a strong team, they need to believe that and drive for more.

Ireland seemed mindful of changes in the backline, which possibly resulted in a forwards-focused game plan. After seeing how effective their backline attack was early on, however, Ireland should feed more ball their way.

Sene Naoupu and the wings Elise O’Byrne White and Mairead Coyne were no doubt stronger than their Welsh counterparts. Nikki Caughey, who is part of Ireland’s professional sevens squad, helped to cut the Welsh up from out-half and I’d like to see the backs get more ball this week.

In Perpignan, it’ll be a tough game as the French enjoy putting on a performance in the south of the country. They have a strong pack but a couple of injuries, and this will be a better test of where Ireland are.

Ireland need to bring 80 minutes of mental clarity and manage the game well to collect points along the way. The team that shows better game management this weekend will come out on top.

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