By Alan Pearey, Rugby World Deputy Editor
SO, here we go again. Three weeks and a day after the teams were left kicking their heels in Siberian Paris, France and Ireland meet to decide who will chase Wales hardest to the RBS 6 Nations finishing line.
Since that shambolic postponement, France have beaten Scotland unconvincingly and Ireland have done a number on the Italians. Ireland have the same line-up while France, who were troubled by Ross Rennie at the breakdown in Edinburgh, have reconsidered the wisdom of fielding two No 8s by replacing Louis Picamoles with a lineout specialist, Julien Bonnaire. Maxime Medard is out for the year with knee damage, so Clement Poitrenaud is recalled at full-back.
Ireland’s last nine Six Nations matches have finished: won, lost, won, lost, won, lost, won, lost, won. Not a good omen! More significant, they must try to break one of the great hoodoos of international rugby: since 1972, Ireland have won just once away to France, the magnificent March day 12 years ago when a young Brian O’Driscoll announced himself with a hat-trick.
This time O’Driscoll is unavailable, and in his absence the Irish midfield was trampled on last month when Wales sent their huge backs into the wide channels. There’s no George North for Ireland to contend with in Paris, but there is Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu, both hugely physical. Ireland need to do what they failed to do against Wales – get their big hitters more spread out across the defensive line so that smaller defenders, notably Keith Earls, aren’t isolated. If Rougerie runs into Stephen Ferris or Sean O’Brien he’ll know about it.
Few people outside the respective squads take much notice of the referee, but the name Dave Pearson will send a shiver down Irish spines. Last year Ireland outscored France three tries to one but were undone in Dublin by six penalties, five of them kicked by Morgan Parra. Pearson was the referee that day, too, and he is known to be strict at the breakdown, favouring teams who like quick ball.
France have the same back-row unit as then, which means Thierry Dusatoir – the IRB Player of the Year and looking as sharp as ever – will hope to have a decisive impact against Ireland’s trio of bruisers. France’s counter-rucking was impressive at Murrayfield and the breakdown will see some mighty collisions.
One good thing about that postponement in Paris from Ireland’s perspective – Johnny Sexton is now fit. The fly-half had a sore groin three weeks ago but was ready to play. By giving him the No 10 shirt, Declan Kidney has shown he trusts Sexton to run a game in whichever way suits. He needs to replicate the kicking masterclass seen so often by Ronan O’Gara. More than any other side in the championship, France have a back three to hurt you from deep.
Too close to call?
The lineout should be evenly matched, so, too, the experience in each camp, with both line-ups containing more than 600 caps. However, France have a better scrum, more quality to come off the bench and a more clinical edge, turning a high percentage of their scoring opportunities into tries. They carved out nine line breaks in their first two championship games and converted six of them! They seem able to soak up long spells of pressure without being breached and, at third, are ranked five places higher than Ireland in the world rankings.
The facts point to a French victory but Michael Cheika, ex-Leinster coach and now with Stade Francais, says: “It’s going to be real close. It’s going to come down to one individual who’s prepared to make the difference – that’s what happens when good teams clash.”
Verdict: With 20 wins from the last 21 attempts over the Irish on home soil, France should nick it.
FRANCE v IRELAND, STADE DE FRANCE, SUNDAY 4 MARCH, KICK-OFF 3pm. LIVE ON BBC1
France: Clement Poitrenaud; Vincent Clerc, Aurelien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu; François Trinh-Duc, Morgan Parra; Jean-Baptiste Poux, Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir (capt), Julien Bonnaire, Imanol Harinordoquy, Louis Picamoles. Replacements: William Servat, Vincent Debaty, Lionel Nallet, Louis Picamoles, Julien Dupuy, Lionel Beauxis, Maxime Mermoz.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt), Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Fergus McFadden.
Referee: Dave Pearson (England)