Have Ireland and France peaked too early?

France vs Ireland - Stade de France - Saturday 12th February 2022. France's Antoine Dupont scores his sides first try - Have Ireland and France peaked too early? - Ashely Western/Shutterstock
France vs Ireland - Stade de France - Saturday 12th February 2022. France's Antoine Dupont scores his sides first try - Have Ireland and France peaked too early? - Ashely Western/Shutterstock

It was a soundbite that stopped journalists in their tracks. Anyone looking down at a notepad or keyboard glanced upwards immediately, wondering what Eddie Jones had just said out loud.

Back in October at Grasshoppers RFC, the erstwhile England head coach was holding a press conference to mark a year until the 2023 World Cup. Conversation had addressed the landscape of Test teams, with Jones using a horseracing allegory to indicate that Ireland and France were out in front, just in front of South Africa. England, he said, could catch up – especially if others had peaked too early.

“If you are too cloak and dagger and you don't have good results, the players think ‘what's going on here?’ and it's hard to get them to believe,” Jones explained. “And if you show them too much, you give the opposition too much. It's this balancing act at the moment.”

The sentiment jarred at the time and is more poignant in retrospect. As soon as England’s loss to Argentina in their opening game of the autumn, Jones changed his tune. He offered something of an apology for allowing 2023 to distract him from the end of 2022.

England continued to stutter and Jones was dismissed. Meanwhile, Ireland and France kept winning. They now occupy numbers one and two on World Rugby’s rankings ladder. Though the Springboks are looming ominously, the Six Nations boasts two bona fide World Cup contenders. But is the joke about to be on them? Have they shot their respective bolts?

Particularly interesting to this debate is that Ireland and France have been operating in vastly different ways. Statistics from last season’s Six Nations corroborate this. On the way to a Grand Slam, their first since 2010, France averaged 1,084 kicking metres per game – the most of any side, according to Opta. Ireland recorded 692 metres, the fewest of any side.

Andy Farrell’s men overwhelmed opponents with pacey phase-play instead. They recorded 105 attacking rucks per game, the most in the tournament. France’s tally of just 72 was the least, reinforcing their “dépossession” template where territory is king and offloading flow is unleashed when opportunities arise. Jones has saluted this “tactical discipline”, and he is right. But was he also correct about the danger of leading a peloton up the World Cup hill?

There are two clear examples of front-runners fading – or being found out. The most recent is Ireland in 2019, which we will come onto later. New Zealand’s failure to win a World Cup between 1987 and 2011 now feels like ancient history, but became a curious phenomenon.

Alistair Rogers was an analyst with the All Blacks between March 2008 and December 2015, spanning a period of dominance and plentiful silverware including back-to-back World Cups. Now an assistant coach at Toshiba Brave Lupus Tokyo, he recalls the key to staying ahead of the curve.

“We were set on small incremental improvements due to who you play [against],” Rogers explains.  “But you’re always trying to be consistent in the structure of your game, the skill-set which surrounds it and the attitude you bring to each challenge.”

Depth helps. Not only do France boast an enviable pool of players, underpinned by their victories at the Under-20 World Championships in 2018 and 2019, Fabien Galthié has also taken advantage of policies on resting senior figures and Top 14 finalists to explore options on summer tours to Australia and Japan in 2021 and 2022. Melvyn Jaminet, now first-choice full-back, travelled Down Under as a Perpignan player, having spent the season in the second tier.

Before that, Galthié was also hampered by selection regulations for the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. France used that tournament to blood individuals such as Gabin Villière and Yoram Moefana. Galthié has his preferred player profiles – rangy back-rowers, powerful centres – and as personnel change, the game plan remains firm. A complementary coaching team, featuring Raphaël Ibañez, Laurent Labit, Shaun Edwards, Vlok Cilliers, Karim Ghezal, William Servat, Thibault Giroud and Jérôme Garcès, the former international referee, have provided stability.

“People talk about peaking too soon but at the moment what France and Ireland have is a solid foundation,” Rogers continues. “They know their game and are continuing to build belief in it.

“They have smart coaches and players and know that they will need to tweak what they are doing, but it’s the foundation they have that’s the key. It’s like the Chicago Bulls in their golden era. People knew what they were going to do, but stopping it is another thing!”

Last week, Galthié made the point that there remain 16 matches – five in the Six Nations before four World Cup warm-ups and, hopefully, seven at the tournament itself – to gather impetus. Labit, the France attack coach, has cited a last-gasp win over Australia, in which the Wallabies stayed patient in the kicking exchanges, as a mark of how his charges could get better at adapting on the hoof.

“We are seeing teams change strategy because of our game, especially in defence,” he told L’Équipe. Edwards has voiced the glass-half-full perspective. He believes that squeezing past Australia and South Africa, despite Antoine Dupont’s red card, can only breed resilience.

France's Damian Penaud runs in their second try - Have Ireland and France peaked too early? - Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters
France's Damian Penaud runs in their second try - Have Ireland and France peaked too early? - Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

Johnny Sexton, currently set for retirement in 2023, would be the Michael Jordan of Ireland’s own Last Dance documentary. Even though he personifies one worry – uncertainty over the second-choice fly-half – Farrell’s men will have drawn self-belief from their ability to withstand South Africa’s mauling, scrummaging and gain-line power in November.

In 2019, on the back of a glorious 2018, Ireland slumped badly. England broke their spirit by beating them twice, to begin the Six Nations and then in a gruesome World Cup warm-up at Twickenham. Farrell insists that lessons have been learned and one significant weapon is how multi-faceted and, therefore, unpredictable, his team has become in attack.

Joe Schmidt implemented a narrow, punchy, ruck-to-ruck approach that seemed to run out of road in World Cup year. Ireland have responded by persisting through a sticky period. Thanks largely to the cohesion of a strong Leinster contingent, they have expanded. The selection of Jamison Gibson-Park at scrum-half and the development of Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki as auxiliary backline playmakers has also been influential.

Attacking ambition is difficult to measure, but Ireland’s ball movement in the Six Nations has jumped from around 1.5 passes per ruck in each of the four tournaments between 2018 and 2021 to precisely 2 – 1,053 passes from 526 rucks – in 2022.

Farrell’s approach to being top dogs, as opposed to underdogs, is refreshing as well. “It’s a different type of test for us but one we want,” he said at the Six Nations launch. “It’s one we’ll cherish and we’re going to get after it.”

Jones has also used the image of a clock face to depict a team’s progress. Unsurprisingly, after changing horses, he is backing himself to spur Australia to a midnight run in 2023. Ireland and France, though, are equipped to hold off the chasing pack.