Despite playing two games so far in the Six Nations Championship, France remain somewhat of an unknown quantity. Although they suffered defeat in Twickenham on the opening weekend of the tournament, Guy Noves and his players will have taken a great deal of confidence from their performance against England.
Nevertheless, while the French players celebrated their win over Scotland, the adventure with which they played in Twickenham was replaced by a more pragmatic approach that was based on back row power and scrum dominance.
This makes France a bit of an unknown quantity ahead of their showdown with Ireland. Although Noves’ team selection gives some clues as to how his side will approach the game, the intricacies of their overall strategy remain vague.
Over the course of the last two weeks, various Irish commentators have argued that France continue to play without structure, however while speaking to us on The Oval Office Podcast, former Munster and current Section Paloise flanker, Paddy Butler, argued Noves is trying to employ a 1-3-3-1 system.
French teams don’t like to get into too much structure over here, but from what I have seen, they [France] are trying to play with some structure. They are trying to employ a 1-3-3-1 system with one forward out wide, two pods of three in the middle followed by another loose forward out wide.
It gives France options off 10, to allow them keep reloading back and to keep hitting the forwards up in the midfield.
Such a system plays to the strength of Louis Picamoles, who created all sorts of problems for England while carrying the ball through midfield. The space created by the number eight’s barrelling runs enable Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa to demonstrate their attacking prowess in the wider channels.
Despite the absence of Vakatawa from the French starting line-up, Butler doesn’t believe it will make France any weaker in attack.
France want to generate quick ball off the forwards in the middle and feed their wingers with quick ball out wide to get them go-forward ball.
Most of the time that’s where the space is. If you can get the ball into the width, that’s when teams go soft until they get numbers into the hit, so that’s where you start making big inroads into defences.
That’s when you get teams on the back foot having to retreat and that’s where you can attack them with forwards up the middle.
Given the way in which Ireland have looked vulnerable out wide so far in the Championship, the French approach could cause Joe Schmidt’s side some issues. However, Butler believes Ireland will have used their two-week break to adapt their defensive system and address the obvious flaws in their game.
Ireland will have put in a lot of analysis into the way France play, reviewed their flaws, seen where they have made mistakes and after another two weeks in camp players will have become more comfortable with the players beside them.
It takes a while to get used to playing with different players and different combinations.
As the Championship progresses, you’ll see defenders become a lot more comfortable with each other, that in turn will give confidence to the line, where they can come up and get the right spacing and make big hits.
One possible weakness for France is their scrum half, Baptiste Serin, who Butler feels is a player Ireland “can get at”. After playing against Bordeaux Bègles half back in the Top 14, the Tipperary native made the point that “if you go after him [Serin] a bit he doesn’t like it.
He gets rattled in the way he plays and starts to get frustrated. Just from playing against him, he likes everything his own way, so that’s someone we can definitely target”.
Listen to the full interview with Paddy Butler below.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena