Brent Pope: Sean O'Brien is the key to curbing French magic
I have always maintained that winning rugby is more psychological than it is physical.
So to hear the term “underdog” being once again bandied about the media this week took me back to the bad of days of Irish rugby.
To the days when Irish rugby teams preferred that tag and couldn’t seem to operate as well when they were tipped to win. It was part of a historical tall poppy syndrome – don’t get too carried away with yourselves, sure who do you think you are?
But those times in Irish sport have thankfully changed. As Roy Keane would famously say in Saipan and Conor McGregor preaches at every fight – we are no longer here just to make up the numbers, we are here to win. Why a team that left for London just a few weeks ago ranked as high as No 2 in the world, and with back-to-back Six Nations titles under their belts should suddenly think about reverting to the days of fledgling self-confidence is only media bluster.
Joe Schmidt and Paul O’ Connell don’t believe for a minute that they are underdogs and they only deal in positivity. All week the affirmations would have been that the Irish team have to step it up a notch or two from the way they played against Italy, but at the end of the day they still won and on their day are capable of beating any team in the world.
That they are a team that has beaten all but one of the previous world champions in the past two years certainly means they are a team that knows how to beat France.
We all knew when the draw came out that this French game was going to be extremely tough and that it would be the pool game to ultimately decide Ireland’s eventual route to potential RWC glory.
Last weekend’s substandard offering against Italy made plenty of the Irish supporters hearts skip a beat.
And the atmosphere after the game was strangely muted. The public had expected the team to show us what they had. Yet, despite the win and qualification, they never quite delivered.
But Ireland have had a chance to sit down this week and iron out what went wrong and put it right.
I ran into a well-known GAA man during the week, and he said that Ireland could be like the brilliant Dublin football side. They are following a similar path – a few soft games early on that never really tested them, then a huge wake-up call against Mayo, before eventually knuckling down to win the final against Kerry.
That is what the Irish team must be saying – that this was just a blip, not a disaster. And after all, they did see off a desperate Italian side and qualify for the knock-out stages, which is exactly what they originally set out to do. No different to the likes of the All Blacks and South Africa, who are themselves not exactly firing.
But now they must really show what they are capable off – so, how will Ireland go about trying to beat France?
They will do so by playing the same way they did in the last two Six Nations campaigns, namely use a strong set-piece game and use out-half Jonathan Sexton’s educated kick-and-chase game.
Ireland need to out-scrum the French from the first whistle, because that is an area that has always attacked the French ego the most.
France feel that if they can dominate you in that area, then they can dominate you physically. Ireland will be helped by at least having a decent referee this week at scrum time in Nigel Owens, and they can feel confident they will be given a fair and consistent rub of the green at set-piece time.
France like to play for scrum penalties to give them field position, and Ireland needs to deny them that by out scrumming them first. French out-half Frédéric Michalak is like his coach Philippe St Andre, a bit of an enigma.
Michalak can win games just as easily as he can lose them and is very much a confidence player in the mould of Carlos Spencer or Quade Cooper.
At the moment, Michalak is playing confidently, and in that regard the Irish dam busters must pressure him early in the game and unsettle him.
I would like to see more of Seán O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip attacking the French 9-10 channel, especially from first or second phase ball.
Years ago I was lucky enough to play against the legendary Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke and in those days Auckland and the All Blacks created game plans around those individual players’ skill sets.
Two years ago, O’Brien was perhaps the most dynamic ball carrier on the planet. But now he spends too much of his time crouched over the ball in the tighter, collision areas. Ireland must use his power and straight running to greater effect but out wide Schmidt needs to create more time on the ball for his loose forwards and develop a pattern that sees them attack the French inside backs with ball in hand.
Conversely, you can almost guarantee that the huge French no 8 Louis Picomoles will be directed to run directly down Sexton’s channel and force the Leinster man into the tackle.
Ireland’s rolling maul, so potent in the last two Six Nations, did not work particularly well against Italy.
For the same reason it did not worked against Wales in Ireland’s warm up game.
Teams are sacking the ball carrier quickly in the lineout now, and dropping the maul before it gets any serious momentum. Simon Easterby and the Irish team will have looked at this after last week’s match and, hopefully, addressed the problem.
It’s a matter of shifting the point of contact and having better, lower body positions in the original set-up phase. I don’t buy for a minute the conspiracy theory that the Irish players have been holding back their style of play for the past six weeks.
That would presume that the likes of Sexton and O’Connell were pure geniuses last Sunday, lulling Italy in a game they might have actually won.
Holding something back is when you play well, but you don’t show all your trump cards, so we can forget that. Do I think Ireland has hit its straps yet, absolutely not? This Sunday I am confident that Ireland will be a different, a much more focused team, bristling with aggression and with superior team spirit and a better coach. Ireland is now in the big boys sand pit and they better come out kicking sand.