The gospel according to Whiff of Cordite...
In the end, the ayes had it – the overwhelming verdict ahead of the game was that Ireland would win and the only danger was that France would <cliché about unpredictability>. This type of situation always makes us nervous, and, while we trusted in the system of Joe ‘Deep Blue’ Schmidt, we couldn’t see anything other than a one score game. It wasn’t high-quality fare, and wasn’t hugely watchable – “one for the purists” as they say – but Ireland were on top for long enough to call this win deserved. The bandwagon rolls on, and what did we learn?
Back in the noughties, the merest mention of an insouciant Frenchman strolling under the posts before having a fag in the changing room was cue for the entire Irish nation to go weak at the knees and worship their very unpredictability, their excellent culinary culture and their rugged good looks.
The team played accordingly, losing seven in a row, and 11 of 12, and several Six Nations Championships to the French. When the draw for the World Cup was made, pairing the two together, we said that Deccie’s homework was to learn how to beat France. Between himself and Schmidt, it’s an A on that assignment – four games unbeaten against Les Bleus makes this, incredibly, the longest unbeaten stretch since 1971-73. Keeping the jackboot on the throat of the French is very important ahead of the tournament.
In the first half, Ireland owned possession and momentum, and the French were living off scraps from Irish indiscipline. That all changed, however, when the French changed their front row en masse on 50 minutes – suddenly all the go-forward ball was French and they seemed to be making two metres on every carry.
The momentum turned on a dime and Ireland were going backwards. So how did we counter it? Erm, by doing very little. When the game seemed to be crying out for DJ Church or Henderson to come on to counter France, management sat on their hands for 15 minutes. Now, there is a chance this was a classic Belichickian ploy – the replacement front rowers only ever last for 25 minutes anyway, and Schmidt was saving his bullets for the last ten – but the lack of reaction felt like something the big southern hemisphere nations would punish more severely.
Schmidt was very pro-active with the bench last year, but this felt like substitution by numbers and nearly saw Ireland come unstuck.
Multiples of three
Against Italy, Ireland used the boot early and often – but this time our tactic early on was to run it from everywhere and anywhere and not give the French the ball. Totally understandable when you consider Scott Spedding’s counter-attacking elan … or something.
Anyway, the new approach got them close to the opposition 22 often, but Ireland never threatened the try-line, or even a linebreak. Ireland’s only two tries in the tournament to date were against 14 men, and when it’s been 15 versus 15, they haven’t come close. In last year’s edition, Ireland were the leading try scorers with 16, and 10 of those came against Italy and France. Scoring in multiples of three isn’t going to cut the mustard from here on, against England and Wales in particular.
Speaking of multiples of three, the five points Camille Lopez left behind from his boot might have been crucial – Ireland kept France out pretty easily when they needed a converted try to draw, but it’s a different dynamic if three points wins you the game.
The 100% return from Johnny Sexton on his return was a critical part of that. Sexton played well in the first half, but he won’t have been pleased with his second half showing – it started: kick out on the full, charge down, kick dead, off for 10 minutes to get stitched up, prime butchery. He was given a rather generous MOTM award from Shaggy, at least partly driven by his heroics in defence in the presence of Mathieu Bastareaud, but make no mistake – this was not vintage Sexton and he will can only improve. For the record – Peter O’Mahony would have got our champagne.
As Lopez would surely know, he comes from a long line of petit French tacticians. One of the most famous, a certain N. Bonaparte, once made a famous, and oft-repeated, quote about lucky generals.
Schmidt is an excellent general, but is also extremely lucky in his opponents. Before Saturday, Philippe Saint-Andre was in a minority of one when he considered Rory Kockott the best scrum-half in France. After yet another ineffective display of Lee Dickson-esque arm-flapping and pointing, he was mercifully hauled ashore for the infinitely superior Parra. Had Parra been on from the start, Ireland may not have been as comfortable for so long.