Ozer McMahon takes an in-depth look at six key players from the Ireland and France squads ahead of a pivotal game on Sunday.
Regardless of the occasion, Irish sporting fans serenade their teams with the Fields of Athenry. One of the lines in that famous song states how lonely it is ‘round those fields.’
One thing is for certain, they will most certainly be empty this Sunday tea time as all Irish eyes will be focused on the events on the field in Cardiff as the Boys in Green tangle with France in a tournament-defining fixture.
The victor of this monumental winner-takes-all clash will top Pool C and be rewarded by avoiding a quarter-final meeting with New Zealand. Neither team has overexerted themselves thus far, but if there was a time to make a statement, Sunday is that day.
No matter what the outcome, the performances of these six players will be central to the result, one way or the other.
1) Louis Picamoles (France)
A destructive and dynamic runner in equal measure, the number 8 will cause the Irish defence all sorts of problems if he is allowed to get up a head of steam with ball in hand. He was at his best in France’s opening fixture, wreaking havoc on a bewildered Italian defence as he left defenders trailing in his wake, carrying for nearly 80 meters.
It was a dominant signalling of intent, yet he was largely anonymous in this facet of the game against the Romanians a few days later, when he only lasted 49 minutes. Consistency has often been a problem for the 29-year-old, who will be picking up just his 50th cap at the weekend, having made his debut back in 2008. It is because of such issues Picamoles wasn’t involved for France during the 6 Nations, and only forced his way back into the squad off the back of three strong outings during the World Cup warm up series.
At his best, the Toulouse man has the skillset and ability to rival All Black Kieran Reid as the best number 8 in the world, yet when not fully focused his performance levels dip drastically. Should he produce a performance befitting of his talents, like he has in four of his previous five outings, he is going to suck Irish defenders into the tackle area, which will create space in the wider channels for the French backs.
At 6ft 3in, and 18 and a half stone, Picamoles certainly has the ballast to fit the criteria required for a Phillipe Saint-Andre team. Central to Ireland’s plans of stopping France getting quick ball in dangerous positions will be to stop Picamoles in his tracks before he gets going.
2) Keith Earls (Ireland)
Having had to wait 19 matches to finally see the Munster man in action, Joe Schmidt is benefitting from the fact that Earls is now fully fit and in the best form of his career. The versatile back has featured in each of Ireland’s pool games so far and his try against Italy last time out made him Ireland’s all-time top try scorer in World Cup history with eight, surpassing Brian O’Driscoll.
These tries have come from just eight games and each and every one of them, across two tournaments, showcased the 280year-old’s supreme finishing ability. Earls looked solid in the centre last weekend filling in for an injured Jared Payne against Italy, but looked set to miss out on selection for this weekend’s vital clash.
However, when Payne failed to prove his fitness on Friday morning Earls was retained in the outside centre berth. As a result, Ireland field an unchanged centre partnership for the first time in seven clashes.
So far in this tournament Earls has gained the most meters for Ireland (209), made the most clean breaks (four) and is second in terms of number of defenders beaten (eight) to Simon Zebo (nine). His ability to cross the try line was never in doubt but he also provided a fine assist for Rob Kearney’s score against Canada.
While his attacking abilities have never been in question, one area Earls’ critics have looked to undermine him is his defensive abilities, but he has shown himself solid in this area of the game also, completing 18 tackles in three games. The way Ireland play, the Munster man’s primary function will be to keep the defensive door locked amidst the barrage of bulldozers sure to test him out, but if he can retain his attacking threat he could be key to prising the French defence open.
3) Freddy Michalak (France)
If there was ever an appropriate figure to reflect the strengths and weakness of his team, step forward Freddy Michalak. The Toulon half back makes Lazarus’ recovery seem distinctly mundane. Having made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2001, he has accumulated just 75 caps in a stop-start 14-year international career. To put that in perspective, Paul O’Connell has 114 caps in the same length of time.
Michalak is a mercurial playmaker, who, when behind a dominant pack, has the ability to carve defences to shreds, but even to those within his own country, the out half divides opinion. Yet a series of French coaches have returned him to the 10 jersey as others have failed to make the shirt their own. Michalak wasn’t even named in France’s 6 Nations squad, where Camille Lopez and Remi Tales split the out half duties, yet now finds himself first choice with Lopez jettisoned from the squad entirely.
France have looked bereft of ideas in an attacking sense in this tournament, yet have bludgeoned their way to three comfortable wins from three so far in the pool. With a conveyor belt of battering rams around him, Michalak does have the passing game to open holes for his teammates and has a clever kicking game that can exploit space if Ireland’s back three find themselves out of position.
The issue with the pivot, however, is can he be trusted when the pressure comes on? For all his undeniable talents, he sometimes lacks the temperament if things are going against him, and if his team is on the back foot. Michalak’s influence will be predicated on the possession granted to him by his pack. If it’s a stream of fast, go forward ball he could be dictating an uncomfortable pace for the Irish defence from his armchair.
4) Devin Toner (Ireland)
By choosing to start with the 6ft 11in lineout specialist, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has very much outlined the approach his side will adopt in this crucial pool fixture. Toner comes in for only his second start of this campaign, but has been one of Schmidt’s main go-to men throughout his tenure as Irish head coach.
The Meath man carries none of the same open field threat as the ousted Iain Henderson, but his inclusion signifies Schmidt’s belief that Ireland can dominate France out of touch. By selecting the 29-year-old it is clear Ireland will be using the lineout as a major platform for attack this weekend, while also targeting the French on their throw. Schmidt is a keen supporter of Toner, with 22 of the Leinster man’s 29 caps coming under the stewardship of his former provincial coach.
While many will see the decision to start Toner as opposed to the mightily impressive Henderson as a conservative selection call, in a game expected to be extremely tight, the extra security afforded in the line out by the giant lock could prove pivotal in the outcome of the eventual result.
He may not be the most athletic operator in the Irish pack, but Toner’s all round game has developed under Schmidt. He may have only gained 15 meters with the ball in his 94 minutes of tournament rugby to date, but the ten tackles he has chipped in with highlights the improvement he has made to his game around the park.
With Sean O’Brien a marked man when charging with ball in hand and Cian Healy still far from 100% match fit, Ireland are now even shorter in terms of ball-carrying options in their pack given Henderson’s demotion to bench. Due to this, it’s vital Toner justifies his selection by ruling the skies on both sets of throw-ins.
5) Brice Dulin (France)
What used to be a dime a dozen has become one in a million. At 5ft 9in and a touch under 14 stone, the Racing 92 man is, by some distance, the smallest of France’s outside backs. With quick feet and impressive skills of evasion, Dulin was your archetypal French back of a decade or so ago.
However, with the emphasis in French selection switching to brutish power runners all across the back line, talents like Dulin have been routinely ignored and overlooked. Nominally a full back, the 25-year-old shifts to left wing on Sunday, a position he filled against Canada last week. It’s likely because of his familiarity with the full back role and confidence under the high ball that Phillipe Saint-Andre has selected Dulin. Ireland’s tactics during the 6 Nations largely revolved around a strong kicking game, and Dulin’s experience in the back field will close down the space available for Ireland to kick into.
In an attacking sense the Irish defence will need to be on high alert whenever the ball finds its way into the diminutive back’s hands. In his two outings to date Dulin has carried for 170 meters while leaving five defenders floundering in his slip stream.
The Irish defence will be bracing themselves for the monster collisions in the offing with Bastareaud and co. but they’ll have to keep a close eye on Dulin’s dancing feet. In what is sure to be an attritional battle, the left winger could revel in the space afforded to him by tiring defences in the closing stages, looking to best them with speed and guile.
Jonathan Sexton will likely target his former Racing teammate with aerial bombs given the height advantage his direct opponent Tommy Bowe will have over him but Sexton, better than anyone, will know not to underestimate Dulin’s timing and ability under the dropping ball.
6) Tommy Bowe (Ireland)
Form is temporary, class is permanent, as the saying goes, and Joe Schmidt will be putting plenty of stock in the fact that clichés always prove themselves true in the long run. It has been a difficult year for Tommy Bowe, one of Ireland’s all-time greatest wingers, and plenty of questions have been asked about his form in the lead up to this tournament.
Once regarded as Ireland’s deadliest attacking weapon – other than Brian O’Driscoll – the Ulsterman stands second in the list of all-time top try scorers behind O’Driscoll, but has only crossed the white wash four times in 14 caps since Schmidt has taken over as Ireland coach. Indeed his two tries two weeks ago against Romania were his first in nearly a year for Ireland having gone through the 6 Nations scoreless.
Yet it is not his one-time try scoring prowess (26 tries in 51 caps) that makes him the most appealing right wing option in the eyes of Schmidt. At 6ft 3in, Bowe is Ireland’s tallest winger and his strength in the air regularly used by Ireland in attack.
Bowe is a willing chaser and strong competitor under the dropping ball and offers an excellent out ball from box kicks. The 31-year-old looked like his old self against Romania, carrying for 50 meters and scoring a brace of tries when Ireland played with width and attacking intent, yet it was back to the aerial approach against the Italians and Bowe was restricted to just 22 metres with ball in hand.
Lining up opposite a French winger, who’s five inches shorter, Bowe can expect a busy day chasing kicks. However, Bowe is one of Ireland’s few players with a proven try-scoring record at this level and will need to recover his finishing abilities of old if Ireland are to outscore the French.
Both teams know their tournament won’t end on Sunday, but their best chances of prolonging their interest into late October will come with recording a victory in Cardiff. Ireland’s players have good memories of the Millennium Stadium, thanks to European Cup triumphs with their provinces and the Grand Slam victory there in 2009.
The Irish will travel in massive numbers, as usual, and the stadium will feel like a home venue for Schmidt’s charges. It may not be pretty, but Ireland should have enough to preserve their 100% pool record.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena