Even in their darkest days - and there has been far too many lately for a rugby nation like France — the one constant has been the power and efficiency of their set piece. So much of Ireland’s attacking play stems from lineouts in the opposition half that any malfunction in that part of the field proves costly.
Sean Cronin has paid a heavy price for the five lost lineouts in Rome, despite the fact that he was only on the field for three of them. Much of the issues last time out was that the fluency that has been built up over time between Rory Best (also prone to an off day with his throwing), Devin Toner, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson was missing.
Cronin had a difficult time finding Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane but also struggled in servicing O’Mahony - and that has cost him dearly. With six changes up front, Ireland have a more cohesive and fresher combination on show tomorrow and must reap the rewards from that.
The lineout has a more formidable look to it but Best still faces a challenging day as France will chase Ireland in the air on the majority of his throws. In Felix Lambey, Wen Lauret and Arthur Iturria, they have three very athletic jumpers with good aerial skills and will launch them at every opportunity to put pressure on Best. With a greater degree of familiarity about it, Ireland’s lineout should be more functional even if Toner’s presence as chief organiser and primary ball winner will be missed.
The French scrum is an imposing unit, due more to its bulk and power rather than any great technique. This is a potential weakness Ireland need to explore. Loose head prop Cian Healy, in a rich vein of form at present, will be encouraged to attack 20-year-old French tight head Demba Bamba at every opportunity to test his inexperience.
While it helps Bamba that he has a 20st powerhouse scrummager behind him in Sebastian Vahaamahina, his credentials for performing at this level need to be thoroughly scrutinised. If you can create doubt in the French scrum, you’ve taken the first step towards the winners rostrum.
If the French are allowed play within their comfort zone then they’ll remain in this contest to the final whistle. To take them out of that requires challenging them, both physically and mentally. The French carry serious size and power into this contest but that comes at a price. The pace at which they play week in week out in the Top 14 is significantly short on what they face in international rugby, with the ball-in-play time far higher.
That has a big impact on the ability of the front five to maintain their effectiveness. The one plus this young side carries into battle is the fact that Toulouse, with four of the starting French back line along with reserve full back Maxine Medard on board, got the better of Leinster in their Champions Cup outing in Toulouse last October.
That togetherness and understanding manifested itself in defence against Scotland when France offered far greater line speed and looked more co-ordinated than in their opening two defeats against Wales and England.
The challenge for Ireland is to stress that French defence through their multi-phase game but also, as England did, through clever use of the grubber kick to exploit deficiencies in the backfield. While their back three are excellent in counter-attacking, new full back Thomas Ramos will always choose to run from deep, even with 14 players in front of him.
Ireland must set the trap for him to do so and nail him in the tackle when he is isolated. Despite the win against Scotland last time out, the frailties that have undermined the majority of French performances in recent times linger under the surface. Ireland need to scratch that early, undermine their confidence and play with a control and tempo that saw the French collapse on their last trip on the road in London.
As with any ship, control must be established at the bridge and in Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, Ireland have the most experienced half-back pairing in the championship to guide the side through the choppy waters this tournament has throw up to date. Current form suggests they need more support.
This must come from the returning spine of the team in captain Rory Best, Lions lock Iain Henderson and fellow 2017 tourist CJ Stander, who are all restored to the pack. In the backfield, Rob Kearney also needs to assume more authority and influence on those around him. Having 14 of the side that started the Grand Slam decider against England in Twickenham last season also helps. That said, the player with the ability to influence the outcome most could well be Garry Ringrose.
He was missed in the last two outings and his capacity to drive both the attacking and defensive mindset from outside centre could prove the missing link. Against a back line as fluid and dangerous from broken play as this French combination, Ringrose’s increasing maturity and ability to make key decisions on both sides of the ball will prove vital.
This French outfit does not respond well to pressure and the callow half-back pairing of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntomack need to be targeted. Stade Toulousain teammates, incredibly they have never started a French Top 14 clash as a half-back pairing and while they performed superbly against Scotland last time out, they were on the front foot all day.
The Ireland half backs start for the 51st time and have been lining out together since 2012. In that period, France cobbled 33 different half-back combinations together. They always appear to be on borrowed time. This pairing, however, could lead France into the next three World Cups if given the chance. Dupont is the real danger man with his sniping breaks, excellent support lines and sharp rugby brain offering the way forward for French rugby.
Even against England, when introduced off the bench when the game was a lost cause, be brought energy and hope. That is why he needs to be corralled with the Irish back row exerting the type of pressure he hasn’t faced yet. If this French team is afforded the time and space to play, they are capable of punishing Ireland on the scoreboard. If they are turned and forced to run from deep where they will always seek the risky offload, then they will come unstuck. Back as close to full strength as matters, the time has come for Ireland to deliver.