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FEATURE Faz, Fabien and a fabled Friday night

Faz, Fabien and a fabled Friday night
5 months ago

So, whom do you fancy to finish second in the 2024 Six Nations’ Championship? The Scots? The English? Perhaps, what remains of the pixilated French? Take your time because it’s the only question left on the examination paper after Ireland’s plundering of the smoking ruin that is now Marseille. As a weeping Saint Jerome wailed after the sacking of the Eternal City in 410AD: ‘If Rome can perish, what can be safe?’

Rarely, if ever, has a Six Nations’ Championship started and finished with its very first match. Laced to the eyeballs with whatever World Cup hangover cure Andy Farrell’s been spooning out – Milk Thistle Tea, Korean Pear Juice – Ireland were an absolute scourge from start to finish. The bookmakers, certainly, saw more than enough to make up their minds. Before the match, France were 13/10 for the title; after it, Ireland 8/11 for the Slam. Turf accountants’ opinions are by no means sacred but they don’t tend to live in cardboard boxes.

The ball was Irish all night long; bizarrely, whether they had it or whether they didn’t. They owned the gain-line, they bossed the breakdown; they reduced the French to an attacking rabble and a defensive shambles. The likes of Peato Mauvaka, Julien Marchand, Charles Ollivon, Gregory Alldritt, Jonathan Danty and Gaël Fickou are, generally speaking, bankers for at least one turnover each per game. On Friday night, though, the French snatch squad snaffled the square root of absolutely nothing; to a man, wiped out and totally incapable of slowing down Ireland’s lightning fast ruck ball or generating any speed of their own. It was a field of corn against a plague of locusts.

But more than that, this Irish team has a composure, a cunning, a rugby intelligence and a unified sense of purpose which speaks – nay, screams – volumes for Andy Farrell and his backroom staff. Coaches who can outline plays on a whiteboard are a dime a dozen; it’s the ones who can get inside players’ heads, who can inspire individual and collective excellence and who can grasp the intangibles who end up garnished in laurel leaves.

Dan Sheehan
Ireland played with an elan that France just couldn’t live with (Photo By Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

Clearly, Andy Farrell’s flat-voweled, inspirational, bullshit-free, emotionally intelligent, open-door, almost family-orientated father-figure approach is a tonic for his players. Alex Corbisiero was on the same Lions Tour with Farrell in 2013. ‘He challenged us, he drove standards,’ Corbisiero told BBC Sport recently. ‘He’s a man of conviction and he backs up what he says. He’s a powerful force, a powerful orator; the way he gets guys to follow him believing everything he has said. You’ve harnessed the pictures, the imagery, the tactics but alsothe intensity and the mindset. He sets the tone. You wanted to please him and you wanted him to be proud of you.’ And, Lord above, England had him on the payroll and let him go.

Coaches who can judge cattle are one thing; coaches who can judge character are another. Farrell introduced three Six Nations’ newbies on Friday night, offering each ‘an opportunity’ in one of the most intimidating arenas in world rugby. All three were simply superb; Calvin Nash, abrasive, adventurous and who snaffled a smart try; Joe McCarthy, a force of nature and Player of the Match (as Brian O’Driscoll put it: ‘when you’ve a barnet like that, you have to play well’) and Jack Crowley who, out of hand or off the boot, orchestrated the entire concerto with nerveless aplomb. The ridiculous hang-time on his sixpence restarts tied the French in knots.

Every player put a pound in the pot in Marseille but in Jamison Gibson-Park, Ireland have, arguably, the most underrated player in Test rugby. He is Ireland’s tempo, heartbeat and principal puppeteer

Indeed, every player put a pound in the pot in Marseille but in Jamison Gibson-Park, Ireland have, arguably, the most underrated player in Test rugby. He is Ireland’s tempo, heartbeat and principal puppeteer. His decision-making, his game-management, his kicking options and execution, his awareness of space, his trail lines, his speed of thought, his consistency and his coverage are all, quite simply, outstanding. As Mick Collins – we’ve never met but, hello, Mick – put it perfectly on social media on Friday night: ‘The Earth is covered by 70% ocean, 30% land and 100% by Jamison Gibson-Park.’

What’s more, this is a team with the balls to back itself. On the hour, the French conceded – yet another – pressure penalty. At 17-24, it was eminently kickable and would have stretched Ireland’s lead to two scores. In a narrow world where almost every podcast sage and TV savant says, ‘take the three points and build the scoreboard pressure’, the ‘three’ was absolutely the percentage call.

And yet, Ireland hoofed it into the corner, Dan Sheehan almost waltzed over behind a clockwork catch-and-dive and Crowley nailed the conversion from wide out to stick a coup de grâce dagger through the twitching French. 17-31? Now that’s what you call taking the points and building scoreboard pressure and, believe me, you don’t need to be born in Cork to love an Irish team who trusts its ingrained, killer instinct.

Maxime Lucu
Maxime Lucu had a tortuous time as France were steamrollered by Ireland (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Ireland, as the very best teams do, think on their feet. When they need to eat penalties, they eat them; they gave away a whopping 13 in Marseille. When the scrum wobbles, they reach for the bag of cement. Their ruck selection is almost impeccable, they tackle like claps of thunder – Hugo Keenan – and when opportunity knocks, we’re talking rattlesnakes. They are streetwise, ruthless and a street ahead of any other team in Europe.

The wider question, you suppose, is does Friday night’s Marseille masterclass merely underline the calamity that was the World Cup quarter-final or suggest that this team has the resilience to learn and get better? The answer, probably, is yes to both.

But, as you can be sure Andy Farrell has pointed out to his squad, are Ireland going to define themselves by one, off-key performance in Paris against the All Blacks or by – what’s now – 18 wins out of 19 home and away which includes a series in New Zealand, a Slam and two successive beatings of the current World Champions? It ain’t a tough choice.

The new faces in France’s backroom team are already under microscopic scrutiny and Maxime Lucu – inevitably – took a public flogging. True, he didn’t have scrapbook game but, still, you feel for the poor guy.

And France? It was a débâcle. If you’re a fan of cognitive dissonance, I suppose you can point to the absence of Antoine Dupont and the beef-wittedness of Paul Willemse; what on earth was such a wily operator thinking? But we’re talking margins not outcomes. Had both been on the pitch for the full 80, Ireland would still have won handily. Their contact dominance was simply overwhelming.

On ITV, a crestfallen Benjamin Kayser said it was ‘a thumping’. The Sud Ouest newspaper described it as ‘une humiliation’; Le Parisien suggested the team would need psychiatric sessions. The new faces in the backroom team are already under microscopic scrutiny and Maxime Lucu – inevitably – took a public flogging. True, he didn’t have scrapbook game but, still, you feel for the poor guy.

Paul Willemse
Paul Willemse could have no complaints after being shown a red card by Karl Dickson for a second high tackle (Photo Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

France, though, have more problems than one middling performance from Maxime Lucu. Down the years, Shaun Edwards has had few peers in his ability to choreograph a snarling – almost offensive – defensive structure but, with the utmost respect, France’s heat shields have fallen off.

In the last Six Nations, they conceded 14 tries – almost three per match – which included two try-bonus points for Ireland and Wales. In the shattering World Cup quarter-final defeat to South Africa in Paris, they shipped four; on Friday night against Ireland in Marseille, five. However sharp you are ball in hand, you aren’t going to win too many Test Matches against the bigger beasts when you’re as porous as that.

But it’s Fabien Galthié who’s most exposed here; my, how quickly a world can turn. Those who know him say he’s technically outstanding and tactically astute to the point of obsession. But he’s no one’s idea of fluffy; by several accounts, he’s a divisive, restless, abrasive, wasp-tongued, almost ‘bad-cop’ coach who’s been known, it’s said, to torch individual players in dressing rooms or lug them around by their ears.

Scotland’s Johnnie Beattie played under him at Montpellier. ‘He struggled with player management,’ Beattie has said. ‘He struggled with being a decent human you want to buy into and work for. People bought into the fantastic rugby we played, not the culture or environment he would provide.’

Galthié’s by no means a busted flush here but he’ll be fingering his collar. The French media and public are – shall we say – restless, the FFR has invested heavily to the national project and his players

Another of his players, the former Stade Français wing, Raphaël Poulain, reportedly, once told him to his face: ‘Humanely, you are worthless. You shouldn’t be allowed to coach. You rip up your players like a dog feeding on scraps of meat.’ (Compare and contrast, if you will, Poulain’s evisceration of Galthié and Corbisiero’s hallelujah to Farrell.)

Look, each to their own; there’s no magic formula here. But this much is true; when results are ticking over, folk often forget about the means because they’re too busy toasting the ends. Yet when the ends get knotted and frayed, the means suddenly come into square and unforgiving focus. And if you don’t believe me, ask Eddie Jones.

Galthié’s by no means a busted flush here but he’ll be fingering his collar. The French media and public are – shall we say – restless, the FFR has invested heavily – indebted itself, indeed – to the national project and his players – misfiring in Marseille – seem to be at a much fuller throttle for their clubs in both the TOP14 and in Europe. À vous, Fabien.

It was a complete team performance from Ireland, with every member of the squad adding a contribution (Photo Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

The Six Nations this year, though, is now Ireland’s to lose and with three games in Dublin and one in London, you can see why the bookies are running for the hills. ‘It was a good start,’ said the deliciously understated Irish skipper, Peter O’Mahony on Friday night, although he went on to concede: ‘I remember as a young fella, watching Ireland teams and hoping we’d hang on in there. It’s a different animal now.’

And it is. Put it this way, if every Irish player in the starting XV on Friday night fell down the stairs at the team hotel on Sunday morning – bear with me – and if everyone who wasn’t in Marseille were available, the team for Italy next weekend might still read: Lowry; Hansen, Ringrose, McCloskey, O’Brien; Ross Byrne, Murray: Bealham, Kelleher, Healey; Ryan, Henderson; Baird, Timoney, Conan. (There are four Lions in there and five others who might well become Lions next year.)

Or, if you prefer, you could chuck in Larmour, Stockdale, Baloucoune, Hume, Harry Byrne, Frawley, Prendergast,Casey, Ahern, Kilcoyne, Loughman, Jager, O’Toole and Stewart. Did I miss anyone? Apologies.

And, just to add an extra, grilled tomato to the weekend’s ‘Full Irish’, the Ireland U20s – Grand Slam winners last year – bagged a try-bonus point in beating France U20s 31-37 in Aix-en-Provence on Saturday night. Seriously, Europe’s red, white and assorted blues need to hoike up their socks. The future’s a vivid green.


Ralph 157 days ago

Ireland could put out three teams of international quality at the moment, if everyone is fit - Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien aren't - but they’re not interchangeable. The first XV is a good bit superior.

Turlough 158 days ago

What is really encouraging is what Ireland has learned from the world cup. We have taken on other teams strenghts (our defense an more like Springboks in certain areas) as well as addressed some of our errors. The two maul tries were accurate and unmistakable. Zero chance of being held up. Defense up a few notches too.
I heard pundits like SIR Kirwan saying Ireland needs to rebuild, that we wouldn’t get over the NZ loss. Ireland’s philosophy of constant improvement means evolution and being realistic about a big loss without letting it hurt the team. Looking forward to the rest of the 6Ns and taking on other rivals such as the World Champs in SA twice. The NZ match in Dublin will be interesting…💣

Rugby 158 days ago

The French were disappointing, too many mistakes and too many incorrect rugby decisions on the field. For example, who kicks directly to James Lowe (4 times maybe more) ? that would be like kicking to Frans Steyn, you will always loose ground. Half back did not have his best game. And Willemse come on that was dumb play. Lineouts were an issue but it can be fixed.

The Irish No 2 ranked team in the world, picked up a massive 1.54 ranking points (the maximum) from that game. They played very very well. Except last quarter where they chose to sit and protect their lead. Giving penalties away to stop tries. This is negative play. It reminds me of the AB’s (aka the Pacific Lions) that’s what they do, 5-10 meters out they give penalties via foul play rather than concede a well constructed try to the opposition even when they have a good lead.

Bob Marler 158 days ago

The Irish were very good on Friday. No argument. France were soundly beaten. Congrats to Ireland.

But I love this confidence. While we’re at it - let’s just say Ireland are favourites to win the World Cup. Let’s get totally carried away because of one win at the beginning of the season.

Marie 158 days ago

Yes, you forgot Hodnett and soon Brian Gleeson

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