This week the French public are expecting their team to produce a first win in the Six Nations. But the starting team was announced yesterday morning rocked that core belief a little.
The psyche of the French takes a while to fathom. They were beaten before they travelled to London and always feel away games are particularly hard but England really freaks them out. They really didn’t believe they could win there given how poor their record against them is at Twickenham. They were unnerved by the systematic way England beat Ireland and Scotland and the way they stuck to the game plan.
But the better than expected performance and Ireland’s poor form has changed the mentality and expectation levels.
They will have taken heart from Ireland’s failure to score tries since the blistering start away to Wales and how our set piece has creaked. They are certainly surprised and maybe even relieved that Ronan O’Gara wasn’t included in the squad as he is held in incredibly high esteem here.
So France travel to Dublin knowing they have lost only once to Ireland in their last 13 Tests. It puts this game into perspective. A win for France will help ensure they avoid their first wooden spoon since 1999.
The French love Dublin and with a modern stadium now instead of the old Lansdowne it’s even less intimidating. That’s why all the sound bites from the French camp this week have been incredibly positive. The training has been of high intensity and from what I’ve heard the players have a clear understanding of the game plan and their responsibilities.
Again though that is how the French think. How they act is something very hard to predict.
Before the tournament the French were complaining about too many foreigners in the Top 14 and the lack of preparation time but their biggest problem has been the coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s selection policy. It’s been all over the place this tournament and I really feel he has made a big mistake this weekend at out-half. In my opinion his best half back combination is Clermont’s Morgan Parra with Montpelier’s Francois Trinh-Duc and it’s no co-incidence that France’s best performance of the competition so far was the first 50 minutes against England when the duo were calling the shots and France still had a chance of winning the game.
Then Saint-Andre unloaded the bench. His substitutions looked like a pre-match strategy rather than taking into account how the match was unfolding.
Tomorrow he will go with Parra and Michalak. Both are undoubted talents and while Michalak was very good in the November Tests he has not been playing at 10 for his club Toulon and it seems to have affected his form. He will be the first choice kicker with Parra taking the ones from longer out.
Saint-Andre made a big deal before the tournament of how his predecessors made the error of not sticking with the out-half when France lost a match and how he wouldn’t fall into that trap. He seems to be saying that Michalak wasn’t dropped for the England game and it was rotation which doesn’t make sense given Michalak’s form.
The rest of the back line looks solid with Wesley Fofana, who is called ‘whizz’ by his Clermont team-mates, is playing in his best position of inside centre again having been shoved on the wing in the defeats to Italy and Wales and his incredible solo try at Twickenham gave us a glimpse of his great talent. He has the ability to entertain rugby fans across the world for the next 10 years and if he gets a metre of space we are in trouble.
Florian Fritz will attempt to shut down Brian O’Driscoll who could be playing in his last ever match at the Aviva Stadium but expect to see Mathieu Bastareaud enter the fray in the second half and he is capable of creating havoc when in the mood.
Maxime Medard returns from a long-term injury and that is the big plus for France. His left foot and the experience of playing full back and wing will be important if the wet weather forecast proves accurate.
Hopefully Ireland will have learned from our match against England which was also played in bad weather, because that day we struggled to adapt. On the other wing lies Vincent Clerc, who is still one of the best finishers in the game and has a very good try-scoring record against Ireland.
Ominously the French pack has the potential to pressurise us at the scrum although it was surprising to watch their tight head Nicolas Mas, who is a world class scrummager, struggle against an average Mont de Marsan scrum in the Top 14 last weekend. He was apparently tired and hopefully Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne can find a way to match him.
Their locks are very physical but not renowned lineout forwards and expect to see Nyanga and Dusautoir to be used a lot on defence and attack.
It’s incredibly hard to predict what we will see from Ireland. Will the leaders in the side be able to restore the belief that must have been damaged in Murrayfield? How will Paddy Jackson play? Can we kick our points? The result is massive for both teams and it’s about restoring pride now. Unfortunately France have a little more strength than us this weekend and more game breakers which will get them a narrow victory.