“You can’t make a definite view of France, if you do, you’re touching madness”.
Keith Wood, Off the Ball Feb 19th 2014.
The greatest unpredictables in sport are now all that stand between Brian O’ Driscoll and an, almost, perfect send-off from the international scene. Ireland took on the French in Paris on the 19th of March 2000, and with it a star was born. The era of BOD began. One of the greatest players of his generation, and now the most capped test player in rugby history, parachuted onto the international stage with an wondrous hat-trick which sealed Ireland’s first victory on Parisian soil since 1972. It is wildly appropriate that O’ Driscoll’s last ever appearance in green will come in the same place he announced his arrival. It beggars belief that In the intervening 14 years Ireland’s greatest player has failed to taste victory there again. There have been some near misses (including a draw on the last visit in 2012, and some narrow defeats. While there have been resounding beatings. If Ireland can buck the trend of no wins in six visits (and that victory in 2000 is the only one in the last 30 trips) they will almost certainly be crowned Six Nations champions, for the second time in the Six Nations era and for only the 12th title in their history.
Ireland have never been better placed travelling to the French capital seeking a win. Despite the fact France have somehow put three wins on the board, the same number as Ireland, they have been woefully below par for the second championship running. The absence of team captain Thierry Dusatoir has left a chronic gap in leadership, with Pascal Pape falling well short of the influence flanker Dusatoir exerts. Without a steady hand in either half back position the French game has been based on individual moments of excellence rather than any coherent team approach. Louis Picamoles had manfully tried to carry the French through their games but his petulance, born from the frustration of seeing his team being beaten all over the park against Wales, saw him dropped against the Scots last week. Picamoles has been recalled for this weekend’s fixture but his return means that France have made alterations to the starting backrow in all but one of their fixtures in this tournament.
Joe Schmidt’s selection policy has been the exact opposite of Saint-Andre. The return of Peter O’Mahony from his hamstring injury is the only change to the starting team this week. Despite the murmurings that Tommy Bowe might return, to the 23 at least, Schmidt has kept loyal to those who have got Ireland into this position. He has made one surprising alteration to the bench however, Ian Madigan is selected over Paddy Jackson as the back-up out half for the first time in this tournament. Schmidt has used 18 players from the start during this tournament, whereas the French have deployed 27 players from the start. Consistency of selection usually reflects consistency of results. The time is ripe to pluck a cockerel.
Ireland’s discipline has been exemplary in this tournament, they have conceded only nine penalties within kicking range in their four games so far (only five of which have been converted). Without showing too much creativity across their backline, France have relied on goal kicking and counterattacking when loose ball is booted their way. The French back three is particularly dangerous when offered broken field to run into, yet seeing how carefully constructed the Irish game plan has been from one week to the next it is unlikely France will be given the chance to run too much back at the Irish defence. Ireland’s excellent points difference is largely down to their miserly defence which has seen just two tries run past it. While they have yet to face an attack as potentially electrifying as the French, they can justifiably reckon their line will remain largely intact, especially if the same France shows up as the one that was embarrassingly rolled over by Wales and spluttered to success against Scotland.
Ireland were very expansive last week against Italy, and their play bristled with attacking intent from the first minute. Brian O’Driscoll had his best game of the year in an attacking sense while Jonny Sexton and Rob Kearny threatened every time they carried the ball in hand. Scotland, who had only crossed twice in their opening three games (both against Italy), found a way over the French line twice last weekend and that will make for pleasing viewing for Ireland as they construct an attacking game plan. The French midfield looks very unbalanced and with Remi Tales and Gael Fickou coming in alongside Mathieu Bastareaud for this clash, there is a distinct lack of experience here. Fickou is a wonderfully talented centre and scored the winning try off the bench against England in Round 1 but this is sure to be a difficult proposition for the teenager. Bastareaud stormed onto the scene a few years ago and was a massive ball carrying threat with his barnstorming bursts over hapless defenders. Over the past few seasons he has suffered with form and fitness and while he has his place back in the national team, his destructive runs are a mere memory while he can be exposed in defence due to a lack of pace. Up against the canny duo of D’Arcy and O’Driscoll he will be tested physically and mentally, particularly as he is now the senior member of the midfield. While Ireland have Paris local Jonathan Sexton pulling the strings at 10. The trio of Sexton, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, that know each other inside out, will be looking to reaffirm their advantage in this area at every opportunity.
As things stand a win by 1 point will seal the championship for Ireland, should the unlikely happen and England beat Italy by more than 50 points, Ireland will then enter the field knowing how much they will need to win by to bring home the prize. Given how well Ireland have played, and how poorly France have been form would suggest only one winner. There will be the added “let’s do it for Brian” factor also edging Ireland toward the winners enclosure. It’s time the players take control of the occasion, and unlike so many of their visits to Paris down the years, don’t let the occasion control them. Queue the green ribbons.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.