France visit the Aviva on the back of a string of quality performances
Two down, three to go. Ireland currently occupy second place in the Six Nations table and aside from a turbulent opening 40 minutes in Murrayfield, Joe Schmidt will be relatively pleased with what he has seen.
But Ireland’s Head Coach is under no illusions as to the difficulty of the task facing his team this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium. As soon as the facile defeat of Italy was over he pointed out that the real test of Ireland’s credentials was about to begin.
Since winning five Six Nations titles in nine seasons between 2002 and 2010, France have struggled badly in recent years, finishing fifth in 2016 despite winning their opening two games. They showed flashes of brilliance but no consistency. The appointment of Guy Noves was a strong indicator that the French rugby federation wanted to move away from a game based on set-piece and power, and little in the way of creative flair.
Since the beginning of this season France have reeled off half a dozen high quality performances. Wins over Argentina, Samoa and Scotland and narrow defeats to the top three world ranked teams, New Zealand, Australia and England, have created a new confidence and belief in the direction Noves is leading them.
They could have won in Twickenham but England’s confidence, after 15 wins on the trot, gave them the belief to snatch a last gasp win. While France were far from polished against Scotland they ground out a win that appeared to be slipping away from them. And as Ireland know to their cost, Scotland are a quality side.
The Irish scrum has looked strong in the first two matches but they are about to face a far sterner test. France won four penalties from their own put in against the Scots and on a few occasions embarrassed England by pushing them off the ball. So Ireland can’t expect to get the sort of quality first phase possession they enjoyed in their first two matches, or the penalties they earned from pushing their opponents off the ball.
One area which Schmidt has developed during his reign as coach is discipline and the frugal penalty count against his team. When it comes to French discipline, there is much work to be done.
Ireland’s ability to keep on the right side of the match officials has been spoken about at length, with the concession of just 11 penalties in the two games against the All Blacks and the win over Australia an illustration of the discipline Schmidt demands from his side. Not surprisingly, they have the best penalty record after two games (13), which is almost half that of France.
Their 25 penalties to date puts them out in front, while they have also lost more rucks (8) than any other side in the competition and this will give Schmidt and company food for thought when it comes to the tactics they will employ at the breakdown.
Paddy Jackson gave a flawless performance from the kicking tee against Italy, equalling Johnny Wilkinson’s nine out of nine conversion record for the Six Nations. As yet it is unclear as to whether Johnny Sexton will return to the starting line up or not, but the ability of our kickers to punish French indiscretions may well be the difference between the two sides.
Conor Murray has proved to be a crucial factor for Ireland when the pressure is really exerted. He is a big game player and his experience, as opposed to the young French scrum half Baptiste Serin, who made his Championship debut against England, may be vital.
Murray believes Ireland still have a great chance to win the Six Nations, “We have the hunger to go the distance,” he says. “We’re highly motivated and really hyped up for the game this weekend. We were disappointed the way we started the tournament but we bounced back against Italy and we have the ability to get the results we need to win the Championship. We need to play our best to beat each opponent and then reassess and go again.”
If Ireland are to challenge for the Championship this year, they will have to do it the hard way, since the result in Murrayfield only three wins will suffice. They ought to get another win under their belts this week but it won’t be easy.