The key issues that will shape today’s seismic Six Nations clash at the Aviva Stadium
Who got them right? Both coaches have made changes from the match day squads that successfully negotiated their respective opening encounters but the rationale applied is slightly different.
Philippe Saint-Andre has acquired the pseudonym of tinkerman for good reason. Camille Lopez and Rory Kockott were his 14th different half-back combination when they started against Scotland last Saturday.
In his 32 tests to date he has used a total of 80 players. Incredible. In fact only five of today’s team started in Paris last year.
Despite the win over Scotland, Saint-Andre was under pressure to reintroduce home grown favourites Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin over the naturalised South African duo of Kockott and Scott Spedding but, for once, resisted the temptation to tweak.
I think Joe Schmidt will be pleased with that decision given that the recall of Parra would have offered a seamless launchpad for the French outside backs offered by a Clermont-Auvergne trio of Parra, Lopez and Wesley Fofana, who know each other’s play inside out.
With Clermont’s Damien Chouly at No 8, starting Parra made even more sense. In the end, when change was justified, the French coach kept it to a minimum with Eddie Ben Arous starting for injured loose head Alexandre Menini.
Schmidt, ever the pragmatist, always cuts his cloth according to the tools available and with a new midfield combination of Ian Keatley, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne on show in Rome limited his attacking ambition, keeping things relatively simple behind the scrum.
Schmidt and Johnny Sexton are joined at the hip and with his main play-maker now available after three months of inactivity, the out-half was always going to be reinstated. The big question surrounding this call is whether or not Sexton will be up to the pace of international rugby. More on that below.
Schmidt isn’t known to take unnecessary gambles but whatever about the inclusion of Sean O’Brien the selection of Cian Healy represents a big one. The problem is if Jack McGrath got injured early in the game, Healy would be under pressure to finish it.
In an era where all teams are getting bigger year-on-year, this French pack is enormous. As a result their Irish counterparts will be under no illusions of the task they face.
At least they have a bit of previous experience in this department this season against an equally physical Springbok unit last November.
If anything South Africa were more athletic without losing anything on the weighing scales. The Springboks were also better conditioned than the French and more able to last the course.
As an overall approach Schmidt will seek to take the French front five out of their comfort zone by forcing the pace of the game from the off but won’t be able to side step the direct physical confrontation they will seek to impose in every scrum and maul.
Scotland’s forwards stood up reasonably well in this area in the opening half but the French, supplemented by two behemoths in Uini Atonio and Romain Toafifenua — who bring a combined 43st off the bench — turned the screw in the second half and suffocated the visitors challenge.
Saint-Andre adds even more ballast off the bench this week with the inclusion of 20st Clermont loose head Vincent Debaty.
However, there are times when the sheer weight of the French unit works against the team as a whole.
We are all aware of the frail mentality that still exists when this team plays away from home — France have only won three of their last ten away fixtures in the championship — so the sight of their massive forwards being driven yards back in contact has a big psychological effect on the team as a whole.
Scotland displayed sufficient technical nous and grunt to force the French pack on the retreat with several well executed mauls and, if anything, Ireland are even more technically proficient in this phase than our Celtic cousins.
The maul proved a valuable tool in destabilising the Italian pack last weekend and a repeat of that would not only create doubts in the mindset of several of the French players but would also ignite a spark in a Lansdowne Road crowd who would appreciate the significance of the moment.
The improvement in the Irish scrum at the Stadio Olimpico was also well timed but will need to be even more efficient today.
“I have some sympathy with the England selectors because Owen had been their go-to guy for a couple of years. They obviously had a lot of faith and belief in him, but he’d only had one game of rugby going into the All Blacks match and that turned out to not be enough.”
So said Saracens coach Mark McCall, talking after his club No 10 Owen Farrell had a poor game against New Zealand last November when he had only one game behind him in eight weeks due to injury. Johnny Sexton has had none.
At least he has done it before and Schmidt remembers it, a 38-22 Heineken Cup win ironically over his current club Racing Metro back in Schmidt’s first season after a similar 12 week lay-off.
If we held our breath every time Ian Keatley touched the ball in the opening quarter last weekend, we will do likewise every time Sexton takes a hit. No more concussions please.
Schmidt has obviously seen enough in training to convince him Sexton is good to go and with him back directing operations we can expect a more varied attacking template from Ireland. Sexton makes this Ireland team tick.
I suspect the presence of Camille Lopez in the opposite 10 for France was another influencing factor in Schmidt’s decision.
France started out in last seasons campaign with a rookie in Jules Plisson — remember him — before recalling the more stabling influence of Remi Tales for the final game against Ireland.
Tales made a difference that day but the emergence of Lopez as a genuine playmaker and controlling influence at out-half has added more to the French game.
In the November series and against Scotland, there were signs of a greater attacking structure and better lines of running from the French back line. Lopez was a key element in this, his kicking out of hand superb.
Sexton’s tactical kicking was central to Ireland’s successful November campaign while his range of passing and trade mark loop plays always manage to create confusion in opposition defensive ranks. His ability to turn the French back three will also be key and Racing Metro’s Teddy Thomas will know exactly what to expect.
The question is, will he be able to cope. For all his proven attacking threat, doubts surround his defensive reads and positional play. No better player than Sexton to exploit that.
There is a symmetry of sorts in that Sexton’s concussion woes started in this fixture last March when he was flattened by Mathieu Bastareaud. I have no doubt the Toulon basher will look to test his appetite for contact today early and often.
Two of the last three contests finished in draws while last year’s decider went down to the final play before Ireland won after Jean-Marc Doussain missed a vital kick with a few minutes to go.
I expect it will be equally tight this time out.