The French will use their scrum to impose themselves on an Irish pack that has struggled to maintain their physical intensity over the full 80 minutes of games in this championship.
The French scrum excelled against England with the recalled Thomas Domingo doing a number on Lions Test hopeful Dan Cole, proving he should have been in the team from the outset of the tournament ahead of Yannick Forestier. Reinstated along with his Clermont Auvergne hooker Benjamin Kayser, they created havoc against the big English pack.
Domingo was out injured when Clermont faced Leinster in the Heineken Cup pool stages but has caused problems for Mike Ross on previous occasions. At just 5’9” he is the original lugworm at loose head that can cause problems for tall tight heads. The fact that tight head Nicolas Mas is only 5’ 11” means that the French have a very low starting point when entering the scrum and this has certain advantages over taller opponents.
Vincent Debaty is normally introduced off the bench on the 55 minute mark and is a far bigger man but not half as effective in the scrum. With Stephen Archer promoted to bench duty for the first time at this level, Declan Kidney will hope Debaty will be on board when he introduces the young Cork man in the second half.
To empower their scrum even further, France have gone for two bruisers in the second row in the aptly named Christophe Samson and Yoann Maestri, neither of whom are outstanding line-out operators. Instead they tend to rely on their back rowers to win quality ball off the top with Maestri doing the basic defensive work at the front of the French line out in securing banker ball. Ireland need to target the likes of Nyanga and Dusautoir on the French throw in order to manufacture turnovers and frustrate the visitors.
The newly installed Irish captain has had a very difficult Six Nations with the focus on his decision-making and form impacting on his normal chirpy and confident demeanour.
I have a certain sympathy for him as having taken over from an iconic captain in Ciarán Fitzgerald — Fitzy was still on the bench at that stage — I know that it takes time to establish yourself in the role.
The biggest contribution Heaslip can make to the Irish cause today is to nullify the threat posed by his opposite number Louis Picamoles. That is easier said than done as the Toulouse No 8 is in outstanding form, is a massive ball carrier and the go to man for the French pack. That is why Ireland and Heaslip in particular, must stop him before he gets up a head of steam. Munster used to have a call a few years ago that anyone sitting near the touch line got very familiar with. ‘Hammer the hammer’ became a familiar battle cry. The basic tenet was to single out the most influential forward and biggest ball carrier on the opposition and smash him into submission.
Sebastian Chabal knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of that tactic. Ireland need a similar trigger today and the minute Picamoles gets the ball in his hand, he must be smashed by the nearest two players. Heaslip will require help but if he can somehow dominate his opposite number then he will go a long way towards turning the tide in Ireland’s favour. Sergio Parisse did this and more when the Italians shocked France in Rome.
Saint-Andre is arguably under greater pressure going into today’s game than Kidney.
Since assuming the role of head coach at the outset of last season’s championship, France have only managed two wins and a draw from eight outings in the Six Nations and those came against Italy and Scotland.
His selections has proven every bit as flawed as that of his much maligned predecessor Marc Lievremont and his bench policy, with pre-ordained changes the norm, backfired spectacularly against England.
Having selected what most would accept was his strongest and most balanced side last time out, Saint-Andre has now made three further changes, all behind the scrum, including a third different set of half backs in four games. The big question mark hanging over him today surrounds his use of the bench, where he has far more proven warriors available to him than his Irish counterpart.
Kidney’s plans have been shredded by a series of untimely injuries and compounded by some uncharacteristically poor decision making. The call to promote Paddy Jackson to start at out-half looks premature as he is at least a season off international standard and necessitates the inclusion of Fergus McFadden on the wing to supplement the place kicking duties, ahead of more proven options in Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble. The sequence of injuries to key players has also de-powered the bench with international rookies in Stephen Archer, Iain Henderson, Ian Madigan and Dave Kilcoyne being asked to match the impact of Francois Trinh-Duc, Mathieu Bastareaud, Luc Ducalcon and Vincent Debaty off the French bench.
Kidney has always been a reluctant user of the bench but if Ireland are to control matters and win this game, they need to dictate the pace from the off, playing with a tempo and urgency that puts this French side under pressure. French players are not as fit as their international counterparts due to the enormous amount of games they play which reduces the window for proper conditioning work. The only problem surrounding this approach for Kidney is the requirement to supplement his own forces with fresh legs to maintain that high tempo. Used properly, Saint-Andre has an advantage on that front, presenting another dilemma for Kidney.