As Ireland prepare to take on France at the Aviva Stadium on Valentines day, Ozer McMahon picks out three key clashes ahead of Joe Schmidt’s sides second Six Nations game.
Before you can run, you have to start walking. And nobody can accuse Ireland of hitting the ground running against Italy last weekend. Yet, they emerged with a healthy margin of victory, and crucially with no further injuries.
Things could have been worse for the defending champions, coming into the tournament with a raft of injuries and then losing two thirds of their back row in the build up to their opening clash.
Ireland were far from outstanding but chipped, chipped and chipped away, and eventually the walls caved in. When the Italians were reduced to 14, Ireland made hay in the fresh Roman air. Two quick tries stretched Ireland’s lead far beyond a gap befitting the previous 60 minutes play.
This weekend they house France at the Aviva, and if there isn’t a considerable step up in accuracy it could well and truly be a Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Without being overly impressed by the performances however, Irish supporters must remain upbeat. As this coaching ticket has proved, they are more than capable of getting any job done. They are developing a winning mentality and putting teams to the sword without being at their best.
To pick up a result this weekend, gaining the edge in the following three match-ups will be crucial.
Johnny Sexton vs Camille Lopez
Probably the most important clash of the day. Whoever comes out on top of this pivotal match up will go a long way to deciding the result of the game. Ireland’s No.10 is chronically short of game time having not played a competitive match in 12 weeks following three concussions over the space of a year.
Widely regarded as the best out half in the northern hemisphere, Sexton needs to get up to international intensity as quickly as possible and bring a bit of sparkle to a back line that looked insipid and one-dimensional against the Italians.
While French coach Phillipe Siant-Andre has already declared he will tell his team to target the rusty Racing Metro 10.
Lopez on the other hand is coming into this fixture in top form. The burly Clermont playmaker knows how to move the ball around the pitch and showed against Scotland he is deadly from the tee also.
He is playing with an air of confidence not too many recent French out halves would be accustomed to. He knows he’s the number 1, and he knows the coach has faith in him.
Having come and conquered Thomond Park with his club in the European Champions Cup already this season, Lopez won’t fear the trip to Dublin or the Irish support who will try to get under his skin.
Peter O’Mahony vs Thierry Dusautoir
The master versus the apprentice. Munster captain O’Mahony has developed into one the best flankers in the world when it comes to the breakdown over the past 18 months. He is central to Ireland’s defensive system, and the reckless abandon with which he commits himself to the breakdown is of paramount importance to Joe Schmidt’s team.
As if regularly topping tackle and turnover counts, as well as being a secure and reliable option in the lineout wasn’t enough, the Corkman continues to put his hand up as a carrier when required. The French team is packed with powerful runners and if the Irish defence is going to hold tough against them O’Mahony’s groundwork will be crucial.
Despite being ten years his rival’s senior, French skipper Dusautoir won’t be found wanting when he squares up against Ireland’s groundhog. He has been one of the best back row operators in world rugby for over a decade, and his form shows no sign of abating.
The Toulouse man debuted in 2006 and has seen back rowers come and go like yearly seasons, while he has remained an undoubted starter, injury permitting, under each coach in that nine-year spell.
Ireland’s backline doesn’t contain the same bulk as their French counterparts so if Dusautoir is at his spoiling best, and slows down Ireland’s ball it will go a long way to helping the visitors claim a vital victory.
Robbie Henshaw vs Wesley Fofanna
It’s been just under a year since the mourning began, and the “what in the name of BOD will we do next?” conversations broke out around the pubs all over Ireland.
The young Connacht tyro was long seen as the heir apparent for O’Driscoll, and in his fledgling days in international rugby he looks to the manor born.
Except he is running out in the less familiar twelve shirt rather than the famous 13. The 21-year-old is a willing grafter and is comfortable trucking the ball up in straight lines and has made it clear, so long as he is playing, the number on his back is irrelevant.
Having already faced up to the ‘Boks and the Wallabies in this campaign he won’t be phased by the French midfield but will need to be focused as the Gallic pair bring considerable style and smash.
Ireland will have to pay particular care to Henshaw’s direct opponent Fofanna. The Clermont centre is blessed with a sublime skillset, but from the outside he can come across as aloof and disinterested. He has often waltzed through 78 minutes of a game offering very little before a dazzling step or a devastating line can swing a game.
In tandem with the human wrecking ball Mathieu Bastareaud, Fofanna can be lethal if space opens up for him to run into.
Despite wearing 12, it’s not unusual for Fofanna to slip out the backfield and let Bastareaud step into the first centre channel. No matter how peripheral he appears to be during a game, and particularly in a fixture that has been so close in recent seasons, his inevitable moment of magic must be safeguarded against.
Ireland haven’t made waves yet in this tournament like England did in Cardiff or like Scotland did in defeat in Paris, but the ripples were enough to see them home in Rome.
Ireland are more than capable of continuing their winning start and keeping Grand Slam dreams alive against this French side. There won’t be much wiggle room, but the home side should emerge the right side of a result, with six points to spare.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena
Featured image By Reggie Suplido from USA (The fabulous Aviva Stadium) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons