We’ll need Sexton at his influential best

The issues and decisions that will impact tomorrow’s tournament-defining clash with France...

1. Who is in a better place to win the key mental battle?

With little or nothing to separate these two teams, the outcome of this game will come down to the side that wins the battle of the mind. Much has been made of how abject France have been in the Six Nations Championship over the last four years under Philippe Saint-Andre and with good reason. Under his watch they have finished in 4th, 4th, 6th, and 4th position. While Saint-Andre has never presided over a French win against Ireland, the points differential over his four games at the helm amounts to a measly +9. Ireland’s two wins have been one-score games, by two and seven points, respectively, while the other two contests both ended in a draw with us at our best and France supposedly off the pace.

What we know is that, while France have hardly looked world beaters in their three outings in the tournament to date, they are fitter and more unified than we have seen them at any stage since Saint-Andre took over.

Much has been made of the fact they have had three more days’ preparation coming into this game but nobody complained during the Six Nations when our players were resting up in the weekend before those clashes and many of the French players were getting bashed up in a Top 14 game.

France are dangerous and have been building up to this game for a long time. For the first time in ages against Ireland, they will be fresh and primed for battle. Their first point of attack will be the set piece but Ireland should seize that in order to establish a strong foothold in the psychological war that will be crucial in deciding this game.

Their pack is bigger and heavier than Ireland’s and, as always, they will seek to enforce that advantage at scrum time. The Irish pack know what’s coming and must turn it to their advantage. French loosehead Eddy Ben Arous is a very good rugby player but a suspect scrummager. Mike Ross is selected for one reason and one reason only: Anchor the Irish scrum on our put-in, attack France on theirs.

Ben Arous presents Ross with a target to derail the French scrum. If he can manage that, especially in the opening 20 minutes, France will have lost a major tenet of their game. If they are stopped early, they tend to accept their fate and the heads will drop a little. If they sense a weakness, they will look to pummel you.

Paul O’Connell has presided over the best line-out in the tournament to date with a 100% return on their throw and the most steals, with eight in total. France will compete more vigorously that most, though, with two pods challenging at all times.

Devin Toner has been reintroduced to hurt the French line-out from the outset and put pressure on the suspect throwing technique of Guilhem Guirado. Both teams are big into their line-out maul but Ireland’s is better constructed. Italy resisted that facet well on the ground and France will have taken note. Ireland are a little too reliant on that attacking five-metre maul for my liking at present. It makes them vulnerable. If the French repel that threat early then the mental pendulum swings their way.

2. Can Ireland match the physical intensity and defensive line speed of the French?

Two separate battles will rage tomorrow on either side of the ball. In possession, Ireland need to be far more aggressive in the contact area than was the case against Italy last Sunday. They also need to set the ground rules early at the breakdown.

We have been far too passive in this area but have gotten away with it due to the quality of opposition. That has to change. France are massively committed to this area and have selected two bruisers in Pascal Pape and Yoann Maestri in the second row, not for their aerial ability, but to blitz everything in their path.

Maestri, in particular, is a wrecking ball and takes personal pride in clearing out as many bodies as possible every time he hits a ruck. He wouldn’t care less if he never touched the ball in play as long as he is inflicting physical pain in the tight. Ireland must match that physicality. They also need to engage the French up front in order to tie in more opposition bodies to the breakdown. France are so powerful in this area they only seek to commit a maximum of three players to the ruck with the rest fanning out to clutter the midfield. That, coupled with their impressive defensive line speed, makes it very difficult to break them down or create line breaks.

So Joe Schmidt’s famous strike moves off set pieces, with more space available to attack, will be key to the outcome of this game. If it is true that Ireland have been holding back certain plays in the seven tests to date since August 8, the time has come to place their cards on the table.

Schmidt has been building up to this one for a long time and, after three months in camp, Ireland should be overflowing with fresh options, generated from months of studying the French. Smart coaches have been key in deciding the tight games in this competition to date, specifically Eddie Jones, Michael Cheika, and Warren Gatland. Schmidt holds a clear advantage in that department tomorrow but I am certain that he will see Jared Payne as a big loss.

I’m convinced Keith Earls, Ireland’s best back at the tournament to date, is far better suited playing on the wing and I would have left him there. He will now have his hands full in dealing with the massive physical threat posed by Mathieu Bastareaud.

3. Sexton’s class and consistency must dominate maverick Michalak

Hard to believe it’s 12 years since Frederic Michalak tore us apart at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne in the quarter-finals of the 2003 World Cup. The contest was over by half time with France 27-0 ahead on the back of a masterclass from the then 20-year-old Toulouse sensation. He seemed destined for greatness until England bottled him up in the rain-soaked semi-final in Sydney a week later.

After years on the periphery of the side, he fought his way into this French World Cup squad against all the odds and, to his credit, has delivered so far in the tournament. But he hasn’t always managed that on the big occasions and vast swaths of a doubting French rugby community are waiting for him to implode. Can he deal with the pressure?

Ironic, too, how the dissatisfaction of the Racing Metro backs coach Laurent Labit on Johnny Sexton’s tenure with the club has come to the surface this week! Sexton is a proud man and will be seething with the less than flattering picture painted. He must, however, retain a cool head and resist the temptation to try and win this one on his own just to prove a point.

Against Italy last week, Conor Murray took on a lot of the tactical kicking in the second half and Sexton had less opportunity to influence the outcome of the game. He must be the main man tomorrow, especially if Schmidt has been devising a specific tactical approach and moves geared towards exposing perceived French points of weakness.

Sexton is Schmidt’s eyes and ears on the field and this is the day for him to take centre stage and steer Ireland into the right positions on the field. As always, his influence will be predicated on the speed and quality of ball provided by his forwards but, after a subdued performance by his standards last weekend, he needs to grab this game by the scruff of the neck and show why he is rated as one of the top three playmakers at this World Cup. Ireland need him at his influential best.

Even at his best, this one is going to be extremely tight.

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