How can Ireland beat France this weekend? Ireland are currently in their best run of results against France ever. Since the last World Cup, Ireland have won once and drawn two games, while losing none. It's not a great record, but when you consider that in the previous 35 years, Ireland only recorded five wins against their Gallic rivals while losing 34 times, and drawing twice.
But France aren't the force they used to be. An influx of foreigners into the French top 14, strange selection calls, and a more rigid playing structure have shorn France of most of their flair and fear factor.
Tries like this from Vincent Clerc in 2008 that feature an almost telepathic connection between the backs that conjured a try out of nothing used to be a frequent staple of the French game, but they now rely on the individualism of players like Teddy Thomas or Wesley Fofana.
They didn't score against Scotland despite their 15-8 win, and the Scottish try line was rarely threatened. In fact, when looking at the tape of that game, Ireland will have seen a few chinks in the French defense that Scotland exploited.
How Ireland Can Beat France
The first clip doesn't end up in point for Scotland when Finn Russell missed a drop goal. However, Scotland use the full width of the pitch throughout their 12 phases. France eventually get back to slow the ball down, but they are vulnerable out wide.
F v S 5 - S attack by swflb
The play that Scotland make the most ground in the above video is very well worked.
When Russell gets the ball, France are defending quite narrowly, and Teddy Thomas is already in the defensive line and his positioning isn't fantastic. He isn't out marking the opposite winger, and there's quite a distance between Thomas and Bastareaud inside him. Scotland already have an overlap ( seven v eight).
Scotland put a bit of deception into this move however, and there are three potential receiving options for Russell. A loop play gives Scotland more space and a bigger overlap, now with Thomas attempting to cover three attackers.
Thomas' strength isn't his defending or positioning, and when he shoots out of the line to no avail, pacey outside centre Mark Bennett is able to make big gains into the French 22 and put Scotland on the front foot.
F v S 6 Stry by swflb
The next clip is the well worked move for Scotland's try that attacks the French outside defense for big gains in three of the eight phases needed. First Stuart Hogg makes a break on the left after fielding a kick that stayed in play from Camille Lopez.
The key play in this sequence is Mark Bennett's break.
The hard inside line from Johnnie Beattie holds the French defender, and prevents him from pushing out onto Alex Dunbar who is in behind him. As a consequence, Wesley Fofana is forced to shoot out of the line onto Dunbar to try and shut the attack down. Fofana doesn't time it well, and Dunbar's quick hands free Bennett onto a three on one situation with Hogg and Visser outside him against Yoann Huget.
It's amazing what a simple decoy runner can do to unlock the defense and it's been a big reason for Leinster's improvement since Christmas, and Connacht's backline play this season. It's very simple backline play, as Nick Evans and Brian O'Driscoll have already proved.
France just about manage to get their cover defense across, but they are on the back foot, and when Scotland go wide again, Bennett pops up in the outside channel, and is able to give Euan Murray the time to put Dougie Fife over for the try.
Where can Ireland learn from this? Do they have the players like Stuart Hogg or Mark Bennett that can expose the channels outside Bastareaud?
Thankfully they do. Robbie Henshaw has demonstrated this ability for Connacht time and time again this season, but Schmidt will have to change his focus of attack from the Italian game.
Ireland were attacking very narrow in Rome, and tended to use both Henshaw and Payne to take a lot of inside ball to get them over the gainline in the absence of a true ball carrying backrow.
This shouldn't be a problem this Saturday for Ireland, as Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip are superior ball carriers to the players they are replacing - Jordi Murphy and Tommy O'Donnell.
Ireland played very narrow last Saturday because they identified it as a weakness in the Italian defense, and it was something that they targetted repeatedly. The gameplan won't have to change much. Like the Scots, they'll still need players to run straight hard lines, but instead of the multiple one pass phases that ended up with players taking contact, some dummy runners and Johnny Sexton loop plays will expose the French out wide.
In the above gif, Ireland are running a play off Conor Murray. Murray has three options to pass to, short to Henshaw, inside to Zebo, or out the back to Keatley. As can be seen in the gif, Murray takes too long to decide before passing the ball behind the right option in Henshaw.
But this move can be tailored to attack the French where they are weakest.
Michele Campagnaro has been attracted inside by Henshaw's hard inside running. Had Murray passed out the back to Ian Keatley, he has Jared Payne, Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe (not in shot) against one defender in Luke McLean with half of the pitch width to play with. I don't know about you, but I'd expect any efficient Joe Schmidt team to convert that opportunity into a score.
Ire att 6 by swflb
Ireland's backline looked a lot more threatening in the second half for several reasons. One, they finally started running onto the ball. Two, Simon Zebo started to come looking for work, and three, Henshaw and Payne were being used out wide more often.
This is as close as Ireland came to a try before they finally got the breakthrough. Zebo has identified the forwards in the Italian defense, and is able to use his footwork and magic to send Payne and Henshaw up the line in a two on one situation.
Zebo's intervention here is reminiscent of Stuart Hogg's play against France that they struggled with last weekend, while Robbie Henshaw has the pace and skill of Mark Bennett to punish France.
Ireland should win against France this weekend regardless, but getting Zebo more involved with Henshaw in outside channels will create more chances and should make the game a lot more comfortable for Ireland than we are used to against France.