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Pancake Saturday

Pancake Saturday

Adrian o’Farrell gives us his perspective on the game against Italy and previews the clash with France on Saturday in another exclusive Supporters Club article.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of homes around Ireland will be flipping pancakes. It’s unlikely that any of them will be as flat as the events at Croke Park on Saturday.

The tone was set from the beginning when the only hint of noise before the kick-off emanated from the small but enthusiastic knots of Italians dotted around the ground. This was a curious occasion from the off and a million miles away from the heady giddiness of the two Croker days out last season.

It had been an undeniably quiet build-up to this 6 Nations as the nation struggled to re-find its rugby appetite after the World Cup experience. Allied to this was the fact that first up was Italy – a no-win situation against a team that has an extremely strong and organised pack and whose chief ambition appears to be to stop the opposition playing. If the supporters find it difficult to raise a gallop against them, the players appear to suffer from the same syndrome.

Matches against Italy tend to go one of two ways. Ireland take the game by the scruff of the neck, put away their chances and cruise home comfortably. Or else they don’t, and a slugfest plays out that Ireland typically win, but without looking convincing. Yesterday was the epitome of the latter. The good news was twofold – Ireland did win (and a 6 Nations win is a win) and we did manage to create a reasonable number of opportunities in the first half. That the match became so problematic was down to the fact that we didn’t take those chances when they came our way. When you don’t take them, you give encouragement to the opposition and lose a little belief yourself – especially when you’ve been on a run such as Ireland’s.

The injury to Gordon D’Arcy will bring about enforced changes and that may ultimately be no bad thing, as unquestionably there needs to be some freshening up. It was notable that arguably Ireland’s two most penetrative backs were two guys who haven’t been around the scene for all that long – Eoin Reddan and Andrew Trimble. Reddan’s sniping running game certainly offers an added dimension, at no great loss in the passing stakes, and he must be feeling a little distance from Peter Stringer’s hot breath on his neck after this one.

Other positives are that the guys off the bench got some 6 Nations time and generally did well. Bernard Jackman, Jamie Heaslip and Robert Kearney have a reasonable chance of starting next weekend and Tony Buckley is approaching the point where he will see twenty minutes of every game.

But mostly this was one to just file away under the heading of a win and move on quickly. And quickly it is to Paris with just seven days interval (just six for the French), where lies in wait a French team rejuvenated under Marc Lievremont and Emile N’Tamack. As only the French can do, they have reinvigorated themselves within one period of eighty minutes. The players played with a freedom not seen since before the onset of Bernard Laporte.

Contrast the selection of outhalves between France and England. Both had the option of playing the more solid and experienced (Wilkinson and Skrela) or the more exciting and fresh (Cipriani and Trinh-Duc). Inherent in these decisions was an insight into the playing philosophy of both coaches. That France went on to comfortably win a match many expected them to lose and England went on to lose a match most expected them to win comfortably was just reward for both. It’s disappointing from a man with Ashton’s reputation as a visionary backs coach.

Meanwhile, France’s victory was so complete that it makes looking forward to Paris next weekend an exercise in trepidation. Even the crumb of comfort that existed for the first fifty minutes or so –  that their scrum was a serious weakness – was denied us when Nicolas Mas came on and changed that totally in an awesome display of scrummaging. Now the straw that we need to clutch is that France will come out on the back of this and run everything in the belief that they can simply steamroll teams and press the ‘flash’ button straight away.

There is indeed some prospect of this, but the sheer fluency and confidence of that French performance will mean that if they continue to get the bounce of the ball (as they assuredly did in Edinburgh), then it could be back to the grim old experiences of yore for Ireland in Paris.

That said, this is a ridiculously experienced Irish outfit and they will analyse that French performance and prepare a plan to counter this new ‘old’ French style.

Defensively, it poses a tricky question. Ireland has in recent years used a ‘soaking’ defensive pattern which means that they rarely ever use a blitz defence. Against teams like France, this tends to minimise the number of clean breaks conceded. However, the cost of this is that teams are not hounded into errors and tend to retain possession more comfortably. Against a side like this French one, one wonders if we might be better off mixing it up somewhat against them in order to confuse them, rather than face death by a thousand cuts.

It would be lovely to think that we could take them on at their own game and run at them. The irony is that this may not be the best way to win the match.