Gallic power and flair can tame Pumas

IMAGINE for one moment that Ireland were drawn to open their Pool D campaign against France at Stade de France this evening.

Apart from the fact that Shane Horgan would be unavailable, Brian O’Driscoll is just about be fit to play and David Wallace would potentially start his first game in four months.

On the back of under-whelming performances against Scotland and Italy, and against such formidable opposition, Ireland would be vulnerable and exposed.

Under the circumstances, we are fortunate it is our other pool rivals Argentina that have been chucked in at the deep end. For the third tournament in a row, they must face the host nation to launch the competition.

They have never won an opening game in their five tournaments.

Brian O’Driscoll’s men have been afforded the opportunity to acclimatise and re-introduce injured warriors over the next two weeks against Namibia and Georgia before the date with destiny against France in Paris.

Argentina have no such luck.

Having lost Martin Gaitin and Jose Maria Nunez Piossek to injury before the tournament, experienced No. 8 Gonzalo Longo has failed to recover in time for the opening clash.

Defeat to Wales and a poor performance against a Belgian invitation side in the build-up has also undermined confidence.

By way of contrast, the French could not be in better shape. Their warm-up tests went perfectly and Bernard Laporte seized the early initiative, naming his side last Monday, 48 hours ahead of the tournament deadline.

Up front, the return of Pieter de Villiers at tight head, along with former captain Fabien Pelous in the second row, is designed to stabilise the French scrum against the expected onslaught from a powerful Argentine unit.

By naming five forwards on the bench, Laporte is in no doubt as to where this game will be won and lost. He has also refused to let influential performances from Freddie Michalak and the youthful Lionel Beauxis cloud his vision by retaining the Six Nations half-back pairing of Pierre Mignoni and David Skrela.

By selecting Cedric Heymans at full back, a reward for his display against Wales, Laporte has an abundance of pace and power in his backline. Should the pack match the quality of Argentina at the set piece, they have the potential to destroy the Pumas out wide. For that to happen they must win quick ball at the breakdown, a difficult task against the arch spoilers.

Argentine coach Marcelo Loffreda has betrayed his conservative nature by selecting Juan Martin Hernandez at out half ahead of the safe but staid Federico Todeschini. Despite some game time at half back with his captain Agustin Pichot at Stade Francais at the end of the season, Hernandez has limited game time in this key role at international level. One can already see Laporte giving Serge Betsen a licence to get in his face.

If he was going to change Todeschini one would have thought that Felipe Contepomi would have been handed the No 10 jersey. However injuries to Gaitan and Pedro Tiesi has limited Loffreda’s midfield options.

With a restructured backline it will be interesting to see how Loffreda approaches this test tactically.

It is unproven whether Hernandez has the kicking game that has served Argentina so well and keeps the Pumas pack going forward. By instinct, as befits one of the best counter-attacking full backs in the game, he is a runner and is unlikely to ignore the talents of Contepomi, Ignacio Corleto and Lucas Borges.

Despite the fact that Argentina have won four of the last five meetings between the two sides, France have all the advantages going into this game. However, Argentina have a cause. Embittered at not competing in either the Tri-Nations or Six Nations tournaments they want to make a statement.

However I can’t help but feel that this challenge, as it would be for Ireland, is two weeks too soon.

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