Battle-hardened Irish can win Six Nations war of attrition against France

After the arm-wrestle, grind and brutality of last year’s 10-9 defeat in Paris, Ireland know the only way to avenge that loss to France is to roll up their sleeves and prepare for another intensely physical game of inches in Dublin this evening.

That is the blunt reality of a game against Guy Noves’s team, who while possessing the talent to cut loose are perfectly content to bludgeon their way through opposing teams.

So while Ireland are aware of the potential threats out wide, which were the cause of their undoing against Scotland and Stuart Hogg in particular during their opening-round loss at Murrayfield, they also acknowledge that the French have the ability also to power straight over the top of them.

“They’ve got threats all over the park, fabulous running threats in the backline, and a lot of that is complemented by the offloading game from the forwards,” Ireland’s defence coach Andy Farrell said yesterday following the captain’s run at Aviva Stadium.

“They are a big set, they will have a good impact off the bench as well.

“The big lads that are a force coming forward, that’s the challenge isn’t it?

“That we meet them going forward, so therefore the threats are nullified a little bit out wide.

“We did struggle with a bit of width (against Scotland). There’s always a reason for that and one of the main reasons is what speed the ball is coming at. In attack you want quick ball and you get the defence on the back foot. In defence you want to slow ball down .... whether you can be dominant in your tackles, slow the ball down, it gives you time to get your width back.

“But it isn’t just about width. Everyone’s obsessed with width but if you get too wide they play through and this French side can certainly play through you as well. What we’ve seen throughout the autumn and in the two games so far is dominant carries with offloads which is short gain and playing through you and the being able to hit you on the counter-attack as well.”

France No.8 Louis Picamoles is the personification of the Noves plan and has shown in the first two rounds, narrow defeat to England at Twickenham and hard-fought win over the Scots in Paris, that his pace and power with ball in hand, strength in the collision and deftness at offloading in the tackle make him a real headache for the pods of defenders that will have to join forces to try and bring him down.

Irish head coach Joe Schmidt, however, believes making a specific plan to stop the Picamoles threat would be a mistake.

“You’re conscious of him and you know how strong he is, and his speed. Because he’s such a power athlete, he generates speed for such a big man, but if we get overly focused on him (could be counterproductive).

“I think (Kevin) Gourdon has been unbelievably good for them at seven and (Bernard) le Roux is coming in fresh, and he played well against us last year,” Schmidt said.

“So I think there’s always a danger of becoming too fixated on a particular player even if he is the catalyst for a lot of their positive play. They have other dangers that are ever present, and you don’t want to distract yourself from them either.

“Certainly the back-row and I think the front-row will both be crucial areas.

“I do think with them starting (Rabah) Slimani it probably suggests they are going to go after a really explosive scrum first-up and with (Guilhem) Guirado there and (Cyril) Baille, who’s been really impressive, and it also gives that option of that real power impact with the size and strength of Uini Atonio and (Christopher) Tolofua, and the experience of (Eddy) Ben Arous and the know-how he has.”

“So I think the front-row is going to be a real battle and I think the back-row is going to be a real battle as well, (Charles) Ollivon coming off the bench - I think he’s about 6’6”. He’s a big, big man. So they’re going to bring some very big men off the bench and that’s going to be a real challenge for us.”

They will certainly make their presence felt in Dublin today, as they did during last year’s attritional contest between these two sides. 

Johnny Sexton kicked all nine of his team’s points that day during his 70 minutes on the pitch, when a bang on the neck ended his involvement while wing Dave Kearney and Sean O’Brien failed to finish the first half due to injuries.

Sexton returns to the number 10 jersey for the first time since November having recovered from the calf strain that kept him out of the first two rounds and Ireland will need his leadership, experience and decision-making skills to see them through this toughest of challenges.

With defending champions England the only unbeaten side after two rounds and welcoming Italy to Twickenham tomorrow, this is a contest Ireland must win to stay alive in this year’s championship race having lost their opening encounter in Edinburgh.

It is not likely to be pretty but Ireland will not mind if the title is still within reach come tomorrow night.

How they compare

IRELAND

Rory Best returns to captain the team at hooker after being sidelined with a stomach bug in the record 63-10 win over Italy in Rome a fortnight ago as Joe Schmidt makes three changes from the side that scored nine tries at Stadio Olimpico.

Johnny Sexton returns to the fly-half berth for the first time since November 19, when he suffered a hamstring injury. The Leinster, Ireland and Lions star has overcome a calf injury to start in his first appearance of the 2017 Six Nations with Paddy Jackson dropping to the replacements bench.

The other change sees Jack McGrath return at loosehead prop as Cian Healy reverts to the bench where there are three further changes as lock Iain Henderson, flanker Peter O’Mahony and wing Andrew Trimble are named in the matchday 23 having shaken off their respective injuries.

O’Mahony and Trimble will be making their first appearances of the championship, replacing the injured Josh van der Flier and Craig Gilroy, respectively.

Full-back Rob Kearney has overcome a bicep injury suffered in Rome to win his 75th cap, just the 12th Irish player to reach that milestone as the Irish back three remains intact with Munster duo Keith Earls and Simon Zebo on the wings.

Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw continue in midfield with Sexton and Conor Murray reunited at half-back for the first time since the November home clash with New Zealand.

Tighthead Tadhg Furlong is the one constant in the front row, alongside Best and McGrath while there is an unchanged second row of Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner, both of whom will earn their 45th caps. CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip start their third successive Six Nations game together in the back row.

FRANCE

France head coach Guy Noves has made three personnel changes from the 22-16 round two win over Scotland in Paris 13 days ago.

Two of the changes have been enforced due to injuries with blindside flanker Loann Goujon fracturing a bone in his sinuses against the Scots at Stade de Frace and right wing Virimi Vakatawa injuring his thigh.

Goujon is replaced by Racing 92’s Bernard Le Roux, who got the nod ahead of Charles Ollivon, while Yoann Huget from Toulouse comes in for Vakatawa.

The final switch comes at tighthead prop where Uini Atonio drops to the bench from where Rabah Slimani is promoted having impressed off the bench against both England and Scotland, the Stade Francais scoring a try in the 19-16 defeat at Twickenham in round one.

On the bench alongside Ollivon, loosehead prop Eddy Ben Arous returns for Noves’ side while his Racing 92 team-mate Henry Chavancy, the centre, is in line for his debut if given the call. There is also space for Djibril Camara as outside back cover - his first inclusion in the France matchday 23 in this year’s Six Nations.

Camara will be on standby for Scott Spedding at full-back alongside his Clermont team-mate Noa Nakaitaci on the left wing with Huget on the right.

Remi Lamerat and Gael Fickou form the centre partnership while fly-half Camille Lopez and scrum-half Baptiste Serin remain the half-back pairing.

Slimani will scrum down in a front row alongside captain and hooker Guilhelm Guirado and loosehead Cyril Baille while the second row is retained from last time out with Sebastien Vahaamahina and Yoann Maestri and Le Roux joins openside flanker Kevin Gourdon and No.8 Louis Picamoles in the back row.



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