Brent Pope: French not up to Irish test
Shrewd Schmidt's game-plan will expose limited French men
If you keep telling somebody they are good enough they will start to believe it. All week I have been hearing about the sleeping giant that is the French rugby team, but what have they done in recent times?
To me they are a bit like a well-bred racehorse that fails to win many races. Ireland, on the other hand, are the current Six Nations champions, coming off an amazing Autumn series and with a world-class coach and captain. This match is Ireland's to lose.
Irish coach Joe Schmidt is lucky enough to welcome back some of his top-line players for tomorrow's match-up. As most expected key playmaker Johnny Sexton comes straight back into the starting line-up despite having been out of the game for 12 weeks and Irish fans will be delighted to see the names of Jamie Heaslip and Seán O'Brien in the back row.
Sexton was an obvious choice but O'Brien is the player that many felt needed more than just 40 minutes to come back up to speed at international level, but if Schmidt thinks he's up to start then he is up to start.
Other than those fairly obvious recalls, the Irish side that defeated Italy remains pretty much intact with a Schmidt's selection policy of "if it isn't broke why fix it?"
So what did we learn from last weekend's opening round of the championship?
We learned that despite missing a plethora of key players, England's physicality (especially up front) was particularly impressive.
We also learned that France, once again, lacked a fluidity and dynamism in their game-plan despite having some serious talent on paper, they also looked out of condition and unfit in certain positions.
What about Ireland?
To be honest we did not learn too much in Rome, Italy were simply not good enough to really test Ireland at any point, despite the Irish players saying that the Italians "took a long time to break down", the usual cliché reserved for this away fixture.
While Conor Murray was adjudged the official 'Player of the match' last week it was hard to single out any great individual Irish performances, it was just that sort of game.
Ian Keatley did well in what he had to do but like his midfield of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne he was not really tested, while up front try scorer Tommy O'Donnell shone.
O'Donnell's game showed more about Schmidt's adherence to systems than anything else, with the Munster flanker seamlessly settling into what his coach asked of him, the same as Keatley.
Last week Ireland just allowed some of the Italian players, namely Sergio Parisse, to run into a brick wall and when Italy's key ball-carriers tired, as they always do, Ireland just cranked up the pace of the game and won without breaking too much sweat.
This week will see a different tactical approach from Schmidt, he will want to stretch the French pack and expose their lack of conditioning, and that will mean a higher tempo, ball-carrying game-plan.
Ireland has the best lineout in the world, so Schmidt will want his kicking game to be significantly better than it was in Rome, and allow the Irish chasers time to pressure the French back three (Teddy Thomas in particular) to kick to touch so that Ireland can use their maul to tire and tie in the big French tight five.
France have a devastating looking backline ... on paper and at times France look less than the sum of their talented parts.
Under Philippe Saint-André just like under Marc Lievremont before him, France appear at times unmotivated, unable to dig deep for a win and lacking any cohesive team spirit.
Conversely Ireland under captain Paul O'Connell have that unity and camaraderie in spades.
You feel at times that France play more as individuals plucked from their clubs than a national team, and while that may be good enough to beat lesser teams they will struggle against teams that know how to expose their flaky mental approach.
Some of the French players also look unfit at this level, and even their props, while huge on the weighing scales would envy the sort of physique that Cian Healy possesses.
Hard running centre Mathieu Bastareaud is a real threat, and he alone is the French side's main gainline player. Despite his prop-like build, Bastareaud does possess silky offloading skills, but one can also question his fitness over 80 minutes.
Bastareaud will carry ball early on and look to offload, but as long as he is met squarely on the gainline by Ireland's big midfield defenders then he can be contained.
Racing Metro winger Teddy Thomas also looked electric against Scotland every time he touched the ball but is flimsy in defence and his Racing club teammate Sexton will know that.
The problem for France over the past few years has been a regular out-half to effectively lead the glittering talent they have, and while he comes with a big reputation in French domestic rugby I am still unsure as to whether Camille Lopez is that man.
I also think Schmidt will be delighted that Saint- André has again left out the "general" Morgan Parra to start, preferring South African import Rory Kockott instead.
One wonders how the other French players feel about the inclusion of foreign players in their side.
For so long the French resisted that notion preferring to always select their own, it can't help morale if some of the other native French players don't approve.
French full-back, South African Scott Spedding, is built like a body builder rather than the lean, athletic type of physiques that French rugby always preferred.
Players such as full-back Clément Poitrenaud were free-spirited runners rather than just 'Stop men'.
The free flowing, off the cuff type of rugby that even the All Blacks once marvelled at has long but disappeared from the modern French game.
The same old cliché about French rugby raises its head, now more than ever, what French team will actually turn up this weekend?
I believe that Ireland will win, because they will want it more and Schmidt and O'Connell will demand 100 per cent from their team.
Can Saint-Andre or their quietly spoken captain Thierry Dusautoir have the same galvanising influence on their side, I seriously doubt it?
France lacked a fluidity
. . . they also looked out of condition and unfit.