Five reasons why Ireland will beat France in Six Nations crunch
France have been installed as the consensus favourites by almost all the bookies but, on the other hand, much of the evidence suggests that Ireland will get their first win of the 2016 Six Nations in Paris tomorrow.
While Johnny Sexton was quick to point out at Carton House that Ireland have recorded just two wins in Paris since the turn of the century, the fact remains that, under Joe Schmidt, they’ve had the French’s number every time.
In the 2014 Championship decider at the Stade de France, Ireland survived a late salvo in a hugely physical contest to run out 22-20 and give Brian O’Driscoll a Roy of the Rovers-esque denouement to his test career. Eight of those who started that night have been selected in tomorrow’s starting XV
Last season, Ireland may not have scored a try but Sexton and Ian Madigan kicked them to victory at the Aviva Stadium in another taught affair that finished 18-11. Despite the current injury crisis, Schmidt has opted for nine of the same starters in this latest instalment, also in week two.
This October past, with a Pool D winner’s spot on the line at the World Cup, Ireland blew the French aside with arguably their greatest showing of Schmidt’s tenure. Of course, the body count was high and, even with the withdrawals of Sexton and Paul O’Connell with half the contest to play, Ian Madigan and Iain Henderson were exceptional in their stead.
Yes, France have been imbued with a dose of brio by the appointment of Guy Noves but, as larger groups, Ireland have dominated the immediate past and this notion will linger in both collective mind-sets.
Similar to Ireland’s mixed showings in the 2013 Autumn Internationals, France looked exactly what they are; a side in transition, under a new coach with vastly different ideals to his predecessor, who is attempting to repair the already shaky rapport they share with the Parisian rugby public.
This was no more so evident than in the passive manner in which they defended against a decidedly average Italian outfit. Say what you will about Philippe Saint Andre, but under his watch France were rarely opened up too easily and every yard gained came at a high physical toll.
Not so much in this nascent stage of the Noves era. France defence coach Gerald Bastide will have been eating his hat at the sight of his side missing 15 tackles and allowing the Italians seven line breaks. Such frailties cannot be eradicated in six days.
Conversely, and even without a nominal defence coach currently in the Irish set up, the systems employed by Les Kiss since 2008 are, at this point, committed to muscle memory by the Irish players. There are still relevant questions regarding the narrow way in which Ireland defend and, indeed, the French look strongest in the wide channels.
But Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney are extremely aggressive operators, while France will require the contest to descend into an unruly state if they are to breach the Irish line with any regularity.
Kearney suggested mid-week that Ireland will target the unusually soft underbelly of the French rear guard. It might just be a case of maintaining structure for the visitors to prevail. Ireland made 156 tackles against Wales, without once conceding a line break.
While many in France and the wider rugby world rejoiced when Guy Noves was announced as Saint Andre’s successor, there were some who felt that he may have been given the job a decade too late. That, perhaps, the man who delivered four Heineken Cups at Toulouse, may just be a step out of touch with the methodology of the modern game.
When England out-half Toby Flood arrived at Toulouse he was left incredulous by the lack of pre-game analysis of upcoming opponents undertaken there. At heart Noves is an idealist, who instructs his players to play what they see and express themselves. It’s a lovely ideal, but not the most advisable manifesto for contemporary test rugby.
In contrast, Joe Schmidt takes meticulous preparation to a new level. A scrupulous eye for detail and, poignantly, weakness, is a hallmark of the Kiwi, who is without question one of most exacting and cerebral tacticians in the game. This may be a formative French group, but the former Leinster coach will know them top to bottom.
Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray did not look a million miles from their well-grooved best against Wales, particularly as the former played some of his best stuff since this time last year. On the field, the duo are the embodiment of Schmidt’s tactical machinations.
What’s more, they are now beginning a third World Cup cycle as a pairing. After so much time as a unit, their connection and ability to anticipate each other’s next move, will be nigh on subliminal. They can direct and marshal Ireland with a level of authority their opposite numbers simply cannot.
France out-half Jules Plisson has seven caps to his name and, at his club Stade Francais, often plays second fiddle to Morne Steyne. While scrum half Sebastien Bezy made his international debut against Italy last week. The disparity in experience could prove decisive.
More at stake for Ireland
While admirable, drawing with Wales last week has deprived Ireland of any wiggle room if they are to win a third successive championship. They simply must be victorious because England and Wales should beat Italy and Scotland, and then the task would become near impossible.
If the doom and gloom which was permeated the game in Ireland following the World Cup and the poor showing of the provinces in Europe is to be lifted, then a victory in Pairs would make an ample launch pad. It would mean Schmidt and co can go to Twickenham still unbeaten and with everything to play for.
France, on the other hand, are rebuilding, hoping for a return to those halcyon days of yore. Their squad is a callow one and Noves probably has a wide berth in ensuring his project peaks for Japan in 2019. Simply put, Ireland need it more.