Saturday, February 11, 2012


Brendan Cole reviews the history of Ireland v France, and the scale of the task facing Ireland on Saturday

France are heavy favourites going into this clash versus Ireland 

It is true that these teams have played out some close encounters in recent seasons. France won two fairly loose Rugby World Cup warm-up clashes last August, and also took the last RBS 6 Nations encounter at Aviva Stadium, but all three of those wins were by one-score margins.

But Les Bleus are a different proposition at home in the 6 Nations, and that is particularly true against Ireland.

Two years ago, Ireland were beaten 33-10 in the latest of a long line of heavy defeats in Paris and in total, Ireland have won just twice away from home against France in 60 years.

Paris in the springtime is Ireland's toughest European assignment by far.

It is also worth taking note of where France are at. It seems strange to describe recent World Cup finalists as being about to start on an upward curve after a prolonged slump, but the circumstances of France's run to the decider make that appropriate.

Philippe Saint-Andre is far more capable of getting France to play to a high standard week on week than his predecessor was and that is bad news for the rest of the teams in this Championship.

It is also clearly in France's favour that Ireland have to cope with a six-day turnaround from a high-intensity clash with Wales whereas their opponents sauntered to an easy win over Italy the day before.

Ireland's scrum should survive with Ross at tighthead

There are some positives for Ireland. The scrum has often been the starting point for a Paris pasting - 2010 was no different - but this time, Ireland will have Mike Ross at tighthead, while France have opted to put William Servat aka the Log on the bench with Dmitri Szarzewksi starting.

In general play, the French wing-forwards Imanol Harinorduquy and Thierry Dusautoir are fearsome in attack and defence but number eight Louis Picamoles needs good go-forward ball to be effective and is no defensive workhorse.

Could he potentially be a luxury which France cannot afford? It is up to Ireland to make it play out that way.

In the centre, Wesley Fofana - nervous at times last week - is another player Ireland must ask questions of if they are to have a chance. Ireland should also get a break around the ruck, as Morgan Parra is no Mike Phillips. That can only improve things wider out.

But the key for Ireland must be the contest between the packs and everything possible must be done to test the fitness of the French up front, despite their extra day of rest.

Ireland cannot afford to spread the ball unless they have done the work up front - as Italy repeatedly found to their cost last week.

Pick and go could be key for Ireland

That means the main carriers in the tight five must seek a tempo that asks the fitness question. Ireland must also solve the mystery of the back-row carrying poorly over several games, especially the wing-forwards. The easiest solution may be to use the pick and go game that proved very effective when tried last week.

Obviously, that is a risk against defenders of the calibre of Dusautoir, but with Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien struggling to get on the same wave-length as Conor Murray at scrum-half, it may be a workable short-term solution.

The danger is that even if the pack does manage to upset the French ,  the backline will be unable to take advantage.

A massive test of the wide defence is in prospect with the 9-10-12 combination of Parra, Francois Trinh-Duc and Fofana set to spread the ball quickly to try to get Ireland scrambling at every opportunity.

As every 6 Nations side does now, France will also seek to target the centres with big carriers. Gordon D'Arcy's miss on Aurelien Rougerie in the lead up to the crucial French try last year will not have been forgotten and he can expect a difficult day with plenty of runners coming at him against the grain.

Outside him, Keith Earls decision making will be tested to the limit in the ultra demanding outside-centre position. French back-rowers can operate on a loose rein and the Munsterman may well have Harinorduquy to deal with at times, as well as Rougerie and the wide men.

Kicking and defence must get better

Ireland must also kick far better than they did in their directionless outings against the Welsh in their last two games. The lineout is a strength that must be brought into the equation, and the exceptional French back-three must be kept out of the game as much as possible.

Things may improve if Ireland restrict their attempts to go high for the choke tackle but it is not yet clear whether or not the Irish coaching group will decide that the technique is a busted flush.

On that front, there is a sense that this match will be a real test of the trust between the coaching group and the players, who will know better than anyone if there are genuine strategic or tactical shortcomings. Defence and kicking - the specialist areas of new attack committee Les Kiss and Mark Tainton - have been the main weaknesses of late.

It will also be a massive test of Ireland's belief and togetherness. O'Connell's leadership and captaincy are rarely found wanting in such circumstances and the likelihood is that Ireland will produce a much improved display.

History suggests a win is beyond them.

Prediction: France 28-14 Ireland

France v Ireland, RBS 6 Nations, Saturday 11 February, Stade de France, Paris, kick-off 8pm:

France: 15 Maxime Medard 14 Vincent Clerc 13 Aurelien Rougerie 12 Wesley Fofana 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc 9 Morgan Parra 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux 2 Dimitri Szarzewski 3 Nicolas Mas 4 Pascal Pape 5 Yoann Maestri 6 Thierry Dusautoir 7 Imanol Hardinorquy 8 Louis Picamoles

Replacements: 16 William Servat 17 Vincent Debaty 18 Lionel Nallet 19 Julien Bonnaire 20 Julien Dupuy 21 Lionel Beauxis 22 Maxime Mermoz

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney 14 Tommy Bowe 13 Keith Earls 12 Gordon D'Arcy 11 Andrew Trimble 10 Jonathan Sexton 9 Conor Murray 1 Cian Healy 2 Rory Best 3 Mike Ross 4 Donncha O'Callaghan 5 Paul O'Connell 6 Stephen Ferris 7 Sean O'Brien 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 Tom Court 18 Donnacha Ryan 19 Peter O'Mahony 20 Eoin Reddan 21 Ronan O'Gara 22 Fergus McFadden


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