Three weeks ago I identified three challenges that Ireland had to overcome to have any chance of winning in the Stade de France. Circumstances have changed a little since that postponed clash, so how will that effect the areas targeted for Ireland to succeed? Let’s see...
This posed a problem for two specific reasons. Firstly, the weight of history and the well-documented sequence of Irish failure to secure a win in Paris, and secondly, the circumstances of that last-gasp defeat to the Welsh.
Given the loss to Warren Gatland’s men six days earlier highlighted the fact the Welsh success at the World Cup as no fluke and that they are a superior force at present, Ireland travelled to face their greatest nemesis in this tournament having taken a sickening blow to their confidence. Bear in mind Wales were shorn four of their first-choice front five and lost their inspirational captain Sam Warburton at half-time, yet still had the resilience to manufacture a winning penalty by retaining possession through 10 phases from deep in their 22.
You can appreciate how deflated the Irish must have felt after that.
Factor in the muscle strain that hung over Jonny Sexton’s ability to function properly, the fact Keith Earls had very little rugby in the tank and Rory Best and Sean O’Brien had a restricted week’s training due to knocks and you question whether Ireland were mentally in the right place. The one thing they had going for them was a fear of failure which at times can prove just as powerful as a truckload of confidence.
The Italian game has helped to rectify a lot of those deficiencies and Ireland will be far better after that extra game under their belt. They will have learned the lessons of playing in the wrong areas of the field and seen the possibilities that open up when Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe get their hands on the ball in broken play. They also had the benefit of sitting back last Sunday — which offers an additional day’s rest over their hard-worked opponents. Seeing first hand the limitations of this French side under consistent pressure, Ireland will have a better handle on how to beat them. Therefore I think Ireland are mentally in a better place for this challenge than they were for the original fixture.
What, if anything, has changed on this front? On paper, not much, given Ireland start with the same team selected for the original encounter while the French show just one change to their side with the recall of Julien Bonnaire for Louis Picamoles.
On paper, then, France still hold a physical edge over the Irish but much depends on how they go about utilising that physical advantage. Against Scotland the French were so passive, they were a joke. They barely contested the breakdown which meant their bigger physical presence was irrelevant.
Likewise their back line was equally porous and non-committed in defence, missing 14 tackles. That will hardly be replicated tomorrow. The major concern I have in terms of the physical stakes is reflected in the composition of the respective back lines.
Francois Trinh-Duc gave a brief glimpse of his power in the contact area when he smashed his opposite number Grieg Laidlaw to open the hole that led to Wesley Fofana’s opening try, against the run of play against Scotland. Julien Malzieu also powered through the attempted tackle of Lee Jones to create the match-clinching try for the unfortunate Maxime Medard. Factor in the massive presence of Aurelien Rougerie opposite Keith Earls and you begin to worry.
To counter that physical advantage the Irish midfield have to be out of the blocks quicker in defence than they have been in any of the opening two games. If the French three quarters are offered space, especially with Clement Poitrenaud restored to full back, then it could be curtains and we haven’t even mentioned the physical edge they have up front.
The biggest test here will come in the scrum. For all the inconsistencies in their opening two games, the scrum has been the rock on which their two victories have been delivered. Philippe Saint-André has also worked out that loosehead prop Vincent Debaty is more effective when introduced with 30 minutes to go than when he starts. That is exactly how Clermont Auvergne utilise him and points to a very busy day for Mike Ross who will have to deal with two vastly different scrummaging challenges, first from the diminutive frame of John Baptiste Poux before squaring up to the giant figure of Debaty. France will have sensed that Ireland were vulnerable at times in the scrum against Italy but didn’t quite have the endurance to finish the job.
France have faltered in the lineout so far but by starting both Imanol Harinordoquy and Bonnaire for the first time, they have their strongest combination of jumpers. The only problem here, and the reason why Anthony Foley must ensure Ireland attack every French throw, is that somehow, in his only questionable selection so far, Saint-André has again opted to start Dimitri Szarzewski at hooker over the excellent William Servat. His throwing is highly suspect and the French players do not have confidence in him.
Having watched France closely against Scotland, I believe they are vulnerable at the breakdown as they are committing very little numbers into the contact area. Ireland have to explore whether they repeat this tomorrow and look to counter ruck at every opportunity. Scotland had spectacular success by doing so.
I also believe, as a result of the crazy schedule the French players have to undertake at domestic level, Ireland are far better conditioned and better able to cope with increasing the tempo of the game in the final quarter. The challenge therefore is to still be within touching distance. If so, Declan Kidney should go for broke and gamble on the O’Gara/Sexton axis to direct and control matters at that stage. It will open up a range of kicking and passing options against a side that are not as fit as Ireland.
The biggest challenge therefore is to reach the 60-minute mark within a score of the French. Achieve that and they have a chance of repeating the heroics of 2000.