Six Nations France v Ireland Preview
Ireland have won only once in Paris since Brian O’Driscoll’s famous hat-trick at the start of this century, but they will run out at Stade de France this weekend as clear favourites.
Joe Schmidt’s team travels on the back of a seven-match winning run that includes a record thrashing of South Africa and the only defeat of an England team coached by Eddie Jones.
In contrast, les Bleus are winless in their last six outings and have a new man in charge after Guy Novès became the first France head coach to be sacked in mid-contract.
Jacques Brunel, who coached Italy from 2011-16, is the new boss and joins the set-up from Bordeaux-Begles.
The key battle areas
There is a chasm in Test experience. France field only one player with more than 50 caps in captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado while Ireland have eight, including both half-backs and four tight forwards.
Johnny Sexton, 32, whose 74 Test caps include six for the Lions, will be up against a 19-year-old who hadn’t even started a Top 14 game before this season.
The selection of Bordeaux No 10 Matthieu Jalibert embodies the new direction that France feel they must take after years of underachievement, but it is no reckless gamble; the teenager is tipped for super-stardom, with BT Sport’s Ben Kay calling him “the most exciting talent I’ve ever seen”.
If Jalibert faces a baptism of fire, 21-year-old Irish lock James Ryan will doubtless experience similar nerves after being picked in the engine room ahead of experienced campaigner Devin Toner. Toner this week hailed the former Ireland U20 captain as “an unbelievable player” and Ryan will make only second Test start, alongside Iain Henderson.
Ireland’s aerial game is second to none in world rugby and Brunel has responded to the kicking threat of Sexton and Conor Murray by selecting another new French cap, Geoffrey Palis of Castres, at full-back. Although he’s no spring chicken at 26, Ireland will expect to gain an advantage in the air, with Rob Kearney one of the best in the business.
France also have four uncapped players on the bench, with props Dany Priso and Cedate Gomes Sa, hooker Adrien Pelissié and back-row Marco Tauleigne all set to get their first taste of Test rugby.
With Morgan Parra injured, Maxime Machenaud, who started only one Test last year, is recalled at scrum-half and will be the goalkicker – he’s running at 94% domestically this season. His presence will be crucial in a France team that features just five of the starting XV from their last meeting with Ireland, a 19-9 defeat in Dublin last February.
Another statistical landmark will be reached when Ireland score their first points – they have currently accrued 999 points against France in championship history.
Ireland have the more settled combinations and impressive physicality in the back division, where Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Jacob Stockdale lie in wait.
Their front-row resources are also immense and just about the only comfort that France can cling to is that Ireland have a poor recent away record, with Italy in 2016 their only championship victory on the road in the past two years.
In addition, it’s 54 years since France suffered a first-round defeat in successive seasons. Having lost to England first up last year, that proud stretch will be broken should they fall to the Irish.
Using a complex mathematical formula, actuaries at QBE Business Insurance are predicting a 24-17 win for Ireland. In truth, predictions almost go out the window with France, particularly as this is the opening match under a new management team. But ceteris parabis, Ireland should get off to a winning start ahead of their three successive home games.
France v Ireland, Saturday 3 February, 4.45pm (GMT), Stade de France
France Geoffrey Palis; Teddy Thomas, Remi Lamerat, Henry Chavancy, Virimi Vakatawa; Matthieu Jalibert, Maxime Machenaud; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Rabah Slimani, Arthur Iturria, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Wencelas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Kevin Gourdon.
Replacements 16 Adrien Pelissié, 17 Dany Priso, 18 Cedate Gomes Sa, 19 Paul Gabrillagues, 20 Marco Tauleigne, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Benjamin Fall.
Ireland Rob Kearney; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Turlong Furlong, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.
Replacements 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Dan Leavy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Nigel Owens was the referee for last year’s clash and he takes the whistle again this Saturday, when he will take charge of his 18th Six Nations match – overtaking the record he shared with Alain Rolland and Jonathan Kaplan. He’s one of the world’s best and not one to tolerate some of the cynical tricks – like trapping an opponent in a ruck or pretending you’re being obstructed – that are creeping into the game.
Owens is assisted by England’s Wayne Barnes and New Zealand’s Paul Williams, while England’s Rowan Kitt is the TMO.
The TV Details
The game is live on BBC1 and their punditry team includes Lions captain Sam Warburton, England’s World Cup-winning skipper Martin Johnson, Ireland icon Paul O’Connell and Scotland centurion Chris Paterson. If you’re out and about, you can listen live on BBC 5live Extra. Click the link for all the TV details for the rest of the tournament.