For all the unpredictably that comes with a Six Nations trip to Paris, there will be certain lessons learned over the past two championships that should put Ireland in control of their destiny when they face a France side under new management.
The French game is in disarray and Les Bleus are without a victory since the final day of the 2017 Six Nations. Their last outing was a fortuitous draw at home to second-tier Japan and their world ranking has dipped to an all-time low of ninth that cost Guy Noves his job as the national team head coach.
It means the team Ireland will face at Stade de France this afternoon on the first weekend of the 2018 tournament will be more difficult than ever to read, let alone determine their gameplan under new head coach Jacques Brunel. Yet the uncertainty this time around gives the French themselves more questions than answers, as their supporters wonder how 19-year-old fly-half Matthieu Jalibert will combine with scrum-half Maxime Machenaud or how full-back Geoffrey Palis will cope with Ireland’s high balls, having failed spectacularly to do so for Castres against Munster in Thomond Park just a fortnight ago.
Also, what will happen when the starting front-row of Jefferson Poirot, captain Guilhelm Guirado, and Rabah Slimani makes way for a completely uncapped replacement trio of Adrien Pelissié, Dany Priso, and Cedate Gomes Sa when Ireland’s three Lions, Healy, Best, and Furlong, boasting 198 Ireland caps between them, are swapped out for bench cover boasting a collective 109 caps.
For once in Paris, the unknown is an element every bit as dangerous for the home side as it is for the visitors.
Ireland, by contrast, have only to find the solutions to puzzles from their recent Six Nations past. Take last season’s terribly sluggish start to the championship, when they were late off the bus in Murrayfield and still napping as Scotland raced into 14-0 and 21-8 leads in the first half.
By the players’ own admission, that there was a degree of complacency in the camp after a hugely successful autumn campaign and that with the margins between success and failure so narrow at this level, the Irish were found wanting in the early periods of the game as the dangerous Scots smelled blood.
The eventual 27-22 defeat immediately piled the pressure onto Schmidt’s squad, leaving them to play catch-up for the rest of the campaign as England marched towards a repeat title before they even had to meet the Irish. Fear of a similarly lethargic beginning to the 2018 programme has been one of the messages driving preparations since Ireland came together a fortnight ago.
“We spoke a lot about it last year and especially coming into this one,” CJ Stander, who will start at No.8, said. “You have to go out prepare well and get the best result every game, get the win, to give yourself a chance at the end. We’ll take it game by game, week by week, so this week is a massive game for us.
“Just start well. Get into the game early, make sure you warm up well and don’t let the distractions get into your head and play your game from the start.”
Stander will be one of just six survivors from the starting XV which last visited Paris in 2016 and left deeply disappointed with a 10-9 defeat and more than a few bruises after a rain-soaked arm-wrestle. It was a loss that pointed to the ravages that the previous autumn’s World Cup had taken on Schmidt’s squad through injuries and retirements as Ireland were outmuscled by a side they had, as pool rivals, brushed aside in Cardiff just four months earlier.
Nowhere was this more keenly felt than at scrum-time where France had the luxury of throwing in a replacement front row of Camille Chat, Eddy Ben Arous and Slimani as Ireland were forced to rely on the still raw propping nous of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong to face a baptism of fire.
Something had to give and as Ireland were forced into repeated scrums in front of their posts, the pressure finally told, France getting the ball away and Maxime Medard darting over the line for the match-winning try, converted by Jules Plisson in a 10-9 win.
“We started well and then the physicality came in,” Stander recalled on Thursday. “The biggest thing for me was just that scrum under the posts when they got the try, that just took it out of us.
“I think we were scrumming there for four or five minutes, keep on resetting. I won’t say that’s the only thing I remember but I just remember that tapped a lot of energy out of a lot of players.
“For me, I’ve learned a lot out of that game and I was trying to give it back to the younger lads coming in; to say ‘look, it’s going to be a tough game and the stadium is passionate, you got to concentrate on yourself and your game’.”
Ireland will not be caught with such inexperience again. Both McGrath and Furlong have since toured with the Lions while Cian Healy, absent that day through injury, is back to the very peak of his powers and has reclaimed the number one jersey from his Leinster team-mate. This is a serious Ireland front five capable of more than holding its own with the French in their own backyard and the decision to include James Ryan at lock for his Six Nations debut will not have been made lightly. Schmidt has recognised the 21-year-old’s qualities to get the job done in a pack that boasts six British and Irish Lions alongside him.
That also applies to the Six Nations rookies in the backline, Bundee Aki at inside centre has Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw either side of him in midfield while wing Jacob Stockdale, with four tries in his first four Tests, forms a back three with Keith Earls and Rob Kearney.
Leave the uncertainties to the French. This is a team, and management, ready to learn from past setbacks, and do the business to get Ireland’s 2018 Six Nations campaign off to a flying start in Paris.
Natwest 6 Nations: France v Ireland
Today: Stade de France, 4.45pm
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
TV: TV3, BBC
Betting: France 2/1, Ireland 4/9, Draw 17/1
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