In social psychology, group narcissism is defined as “the tendency to exaggerate the importance of a group to which one belongs”. Last Saturday before kick-off at the Stade de France, large parts of the Irish rugby community had sunk into collective narcissism.
After nine straight home wins, many had mistakenly convinced themselves that Paris would be a breeze. Paris is a lot of wonderful things, but it’s never a “game”.
One of the most self-defeating traits of collective narcissism is that despite the obvious facts of another group’s power and skill, they are always underestimated. In Ireland last week, it was definitely the case.
By almost every measure, the game at the Stade de France was played at a far higher level of skill than any other Six Nations game in 2022
The reality was that the odds were stacked against Ireland. A crowded Stade de France, waving flags, roaring over a highly talented French side, against an Irish side playing in front of a hostile home crowd for the first time in two years, without their talisman Johnny Sexton.
All of this evidence suggested that Ireland were going to “get it tough” in Paris. After all, it was only the fifth game of this Irish side’s rugby revolution.
By November, Ireland had finally broken the shackles of years of very prescriptive, coach-led and shoddy attacking. Ireland’s Autumn Attack Revolution liberated decision-making and unleashed creativity. Since last November, Ireland have been playing great rugby, and last Saturday was no exception.
far from disaster
By almost every metric, the game at the Stade de France was played at a far higher level of skill than any other Six Nations game in 2022. It was the best game in the league by a considerable margin.
From an Irish perspective, Paris must be seen as a missed opportunity, but it was far from a disaster. Ireland came close to overthrowing a France team three years after their own revolution.
The big change for the French national team started after RWC 2019 with the appointment of Fabien Galthié. He then began the Herculean task of dragging the French team’s training methods, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Compared to Ireland, who are only four months away from their seismic change, France are much more mature, having successfully launched their third Six Nations Championship led by Galthié.
The French were by no means perfect, but their maturity was evident in their effective tactics, little recognized in Ireland. Irish navel-gazing was wrongfully consummated with James Ryan deciding to score a 68th-minute penalty. A decision that I believe was correct.
Few rugby players outside of France know the name of Karim Ghezal. He is the coach of the France team and last week he did a masterful job.
For the first time under the tutelage of Paul O’Connell, the Irish line-up and breakdown coughed and spat. A well-known fact in the world of rugby is that Ireland use their powerful line-up to launch their attack. Many teams, including England and New Zealand, tried to disrupt the Irish line-up but only France succeeded.
A major factor in Ryan’s decision not to kick, a decision I agree with, was that Ireland had just lost a lineout 5 yards from the French try line; stolen from the tail by the excellent French defensive agility.
When the French defensive line-up couldn’t steal the ball, they gave Ireland what Australians call “fractured fruit”. It is an impure and broken possession. France also effectively disrupted the Irish maul. It all added up and Joey Carbery saw very little ball from the Irish touches.
The ball that Ireland advanced was met by two French tacklers from the defense coached by Shaun Edwards. France doubled every Irish running back and added a third jackaler, struggling to slow the pace of each ruck, trying to get their hands on the ball. France turned every Irish attacking ruck “into a fight at the dock”.
Match statistics support these observations. In attack, Ireland conceded six penalties against two miserable by the French. Ireland’s lightning-fast ruck speed in the last four matches has evaporated. The ruck speed was 30% slower than against Wales.
Surprisingly, when France won the ball, their tactics were the opposite of what Ireland and the world expected. For 61% of the French attack, the attackers either ran hard on a pass from Dupont or made pick-and-go runs.
By selecting six forwards from the bench, Galthié’s plan was to win the first way, straight to the guts. When the world expected to see the French ‘rock star’ back line come loose, Galthié went to the 1-0-1 lesson of the coaching manual and gave his opponents what they didn’t want or weren’t waiting.
While Ireland bravely tackle, the power of the Blues wins the winning line 56% of the time thanks to their possession. While Ireland dominated 54% of total possession, the efficient French defense stopped Ireland behind their winning line for 52% of that possession.
Ireland will be exasperated by their early defensive backlog which gave Dupont a quick and uncontested throw-in
Despite all this French statistical domination, the spirit of Ian Dury and the Blockheads must be channeled, because there are “reasons to be joyful”.
France’s dominance at the win-line saw them enter the Irish 22-yard box 13 times, but Ireland conceded just two tries. At the other end of the field, Ireland have reached the French red zone only nine times, scoring three tries.
First, it tells us that the Irish attack, during the short periods when it fired on all cylinders, was effective. Secondly, Ireland went all out to achieve a much better defensive result than New Zealand in Paris last November.
Ireland will be exasperated by their early defensive error which gave Dupont a quick and uncontested throw-in. This sparked a beautiful multi-phase French attacking move that ended with a supporting Dupont catching a possibly forward “hail mary” from Romain Ntamack. Dupont scored the game-defining score.
Crucially, unlike Ireland’s defeats to England in 2019 and 2020, last week the men in green were far more competitive. Ireland hung on, enduring the intensity of the stadium and the ferocity of the French physique which undoubtedly rocked them in stages. Yet they remained comfortable being uncomfortable. In the opening minutes of the second half, Ireland found a way to calm down and they did what they said they would do all week and imposed their game plan on France.
Now here is the very good news. This plan of attack worked like a charm.
The high-tempo, win-line-theory attack tore through the French defense and produced two tries in 10 minutes proving the path this Irish side are on is the right one.
This journey is personified by Carbery’s performance. Let’s be clear, no one should say a single word of criticism about Joey.
Confidence will return
Any criticism should be directed at former Irish managers who failed both Carbery and Irish rugby. Six years after making his debut in 2016 in Chicago against New Zealand, the undisputed Irish number two was called up late to start in Paris. Outrageously, before Paris, for the past six years, Carbery has only been selected to start against two teams ranked in the top 10 in the world. Against the Pumas last November and in 2017 during the Australia tour. Despite Carbery’s significant injury profile, this is simply incredibly poor management of Ireland’s scarce resources and another sad example of Ireland’s poor planning for the World Cups.
As last week’s game wore on and the Irish strikers were given a degree of equality from the start, unsurprisingly Carbery grew in his role. He started running for the ball, straightening his line and attacking the defence. Let’s hope that with another selection against Italy and at least a Test in New Zealand, his confidence returns and his creativity is revealed.
While still at the start of their journey, this Irish side are capable of beating Italy, England and Scotland in their final Six Nations matches. They can also win the first test in New Zealand.
The Irishman’s performance in Paris was not perfect, but the foundations of their new racing philosophy and game plan remain solid. They must learn the valuable lessons that their experiences at the Stade de France have thrown at them. Lessons that can lead to success in Dublin, London and New Zealand.