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Saturday 16 December 2017

Ireland need to find A-Game

IRELAND will have to bring their A-Game - otherwise known as their Australian-Game - to Paris next Sunday.

Like the Wallabies at the World Cup in Auckland, when everything is driven into place by Ireland, France can be made to fall apart.

A reproduction of that demented intensity, output of energy and accuracy in the execution of the basics would go a long way towards sealing Ireland's first Six Nations win in Paris since 2000.

Out-half Jonathan Sexton admitted the Italian performance "wasn't perfect". That is okay. It didn't have to be. It will have to be close to ideal next Sunday.

This is possible, not probable. Ireland's exit strategy could trigger their re-entry into the Six Nations championship race. Captain Paul O'Connell pointed out that "when we got out of our half we were good and confident" against Italy.

The quirky reality is that Ronan O'Gara is the best 10 for getting Ireland out of their half and Sexton is the best for making things happen when they are there.

There is no one better at spotting space and finding it than O'Gara, whether he goes long or short from the boot. Sexton does not have that range of tactical kicking down to a tee -- yet.

If Sexton chooses to play fast and loose with the ball too often in Ireland's half, they will be ruthlessly closed down and shut out by Philippe Saint-Andre's side in Paris.

There is everything right with moving the ball from deep by hand rather than foot. It is the when, not the where, that is the key. This is what they call game management.

It is the most important area in need of attention by Sexton. The impulse to do it the Leinster Way is an addiction difficult to resist. It is in his DNA.

Sometimes what is easy on the eye can be hard on a set of forwards looking to move upfield, not sideways or even backwards.

It was Sexton who had to haul down Alberto Sgarbi when miscommunication between Rob Kearney and Gordon D'Arcy on a counter broke down to leave Ireland exposed and scrambling to survive in the first half.



Options

Yet, the fly-half does not have the options on the ball at international level that he does for his club for the next receiver to steal space away from organised defences.

In other words, the back play of the players running off the ball is not convincing enough, not consistent enough to provide the options, or decoys, for the man on the ball to plant doubt into the minds of the immediate tackler and the defenders either side of him.

In general, Ireland seem to run the numbers. They go through the phases until either the number of defenders is diminished or a mismatch comes in the form of a centre, say Keith Earls, being confronted by a prop, say Nicolas Mas.

For this to work, Ireland's handling of the ball will have to be certain and the timing of the pass precise. This could be easier to execute against France's slowly advancing drift than Wales's blitz defence.

They will not face the same pressure on the ball, but France will have more time to react to what is happening in front of them because they won't be as committed to early contact.

The French did not look unbeatable in their 23-17 defeat of Scotland at Murrayfield yesterday.

Far from it, they leaked tries to Scotland's less-than-vaunted attack for full-back Stuart Hogg and wing Lee Jones.

Admittedly, there were glimpses of what Ireland can expect in Paris, centre Wesley Fofana and full-back Maxime Medard coming up with the tries.

There is a doubt over Medard, who left the field with an ankle injury.

The Toulouse flyer would leave a void at the back, where his counter-attack is lethal, and Sexton could be given the shot at launching the grenades down around someone like his more fragile club-mate, Clement Poitrenaud, who appears to be the logical replacement.

Whoever wears the number 15 jersey for Les Bleus, Sexton will have to put in contestable high balls and make him twist and turn himself into a knot in order for Ireland to make the sort of gains that put them in the right part of the pitch.

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