In what is one of the most pivotal games of the RBS 6 Nations year in year out, France come to Dublin off the back of a disappointing performance against Scotland, while Ireland will hope to improve their game after a lacklustre display against Italy.
Ireland-France has been a controversial affair in recent years. A draw in 2012, a draw in 2013, and Ireland’s dramatic and emotional victory in the culmination of last year’s campaign, Ireland have not lost to France since before the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and they won’t on Saturday.
Let’s break down the three key areas where this game will be decided.
Ireland finally have their strongest backrow available, with the rest of the pack unchanged from Italy. O’Connell and Toner were thorns in the side of the Italians and will hopefully prove to be just as big a nuisance to France, while Mike Ross got through an impressive mountain of work.
Ireland’s bench is the exciting prospect, with Cronin, Healy and Henderson providing huge bulk, strength and carrying options off the bench – this could be a crucial turning point in the game against a large, tired French pack.
Debaty vs Moore at scrumtime will also be a key battle late on, as Moore struggled against Debaty last season in France.
Dusatoir and le Roux are exceptionally hard workers around the pitch and are key to the French rhythm. The French front row are extremely powerful, rounding up a physical pack with Pape and Maestri competing in the second row.
The tone of the day will be set up-front, and Ireland should have the edge. They’re quicker around the field and stronger together as a unit than the French.
Ireland are more comfortable at the set-pieces, and should really look to hit France and move them around the pitch, avoiding a strength contest. France will tire, and Ireland have some brilliant options off the bench.
In Kockott and Lopez, France have a promising duo. Lopez has looked great on occasion, and is a well-rounded fly half, while Kockott has been spectacular during his time in the Top 14. Yet with less than ten caps between them, they’re lacking in experience coming to Dublin.
Jonathan Sexton’s return in the green jersey is vital. He is Ireland’s most important player, he is key to their ambitious gameplan, and alongside Conor Murray he forms one of the world’s most striking half-back partnerships. They’ve developed together, and now bring the best out of one another.
What Sexton lacks in gametime he makes up for in drive. If the game isn’t going the way he wants it, he’s the type of player that will grab the game by the scruff of the neck and drag it with him – exactly what you want from your commander at 10.
With last week’s Man of the Match alongside him, Murray and Sexton will hit their stride as the game goes on and make life extremely difficult for the travelling French.
The outside backs
Payne and Henshaw form the fresh-faced Irish midfield that have unenviable task of opposing Wesley Fofana and Bastareaud. Fofana has long been touted as one of the best centres in the world, although he hasn’t sparkled recently.
Bastareaud is on an upward trajectory and is becoming a great centre – ferocious ball carrier, excellent at the breakdown. He’ll run through the middle all day, hoping to generate momentum and go forward ball.
Henshaw is an exciting prospect. Fantastic in all his Ireland’s caps, he’s a physical, talented carrier who puts himself around the pitch with gusto. Payne is a very skilful player but hasn’t excelled at 13 thus far. It’s a partnership with a lot of promise, but they’ll have their hands full against the French midfield – a huge test for them.
The key target here is Henshaw and Payne beating France in the wider channels. Ireland looked dangerous here in the last quarter of the Italy game, and if the French midfield tire Henshaw and Payne could expose them on the outside – they’re quick enough and skilful enough to do so.
In Zebo, Bowe and Kearney they have buckets of attacking talent outside to make an impact on the French gainline.
Huget, Thomas and Spedding are exceptional talents ball in hand. They failed to impose themselves last week against Scotland, but we don’t need to be reminded how dangerous they are.
While the aforementioned trio are strong in attack, they’re suspect in defence. Part of Ireland’s gameplan will be to test them through boxkicks and territory kicks, but if the kicks are loose and the chase isn’t good France will get some momentum through these three running from deep.
On paper the French look strong as they always do but a side of strong individuals doesn’t make a team. Ireland however buy into Joe Schmidt’s system, and will have a well-tailored gameplan on how to beat France.
A lethargic France won’t play 80 minutes, and as they tire Ireland will grow. As long as Ireland don’t let France rattle them early and get onto the front foot, it should be an easier fixture than it has in recent years.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena