Sunday 21 January 2018

Looking back to look forward - lessons for Ireland ahead of French test

Irish players celebrate victory in Paris last year that sealed the 2014 Six Nations championship.
Irish players celebrate victory in Paris last year that sealed the 2014 Six Nations championship.

Michael Verney

Eleven months ago Ireland left Paris with a win and a Six Nations title, but there were aspects of that narrow victory that could well come into play this Saturday.

Joe Schmidt's side were led by their inspirational leader Brian O'Driscoll and claimed only their second win on French soil in 42 years and in victory there will be reminders of the problems the French are likely to pose at the Aviva Stadium this weekend.

Independent.ie's Michael Verney looks back on five facets of last year's clash and assesses their impact on Saturday's fixture.

Battering ram Bastareaud

The most noticeable aspect of France's 15-8 victory over Scotland on the opening weekend of action was the extraordinary impact of 120kg centre Mathieu Bastareaud whose powerful frame is a lethal weapon for Philipe Saint-Andre's side.

Toulon and French star Mathieu Bastareaud
Toulon and French star Mathieu Bastareaud

Bastareaud has typified a shift in the traditional French style of play with his brute force and yard gains now a crucial part of the Les Bleus game plan.

Who can forget his crunching tackle on Johnny Sexton which ended the the out-half's contribution in Paris and spoiled his victory celebrations?

One cannot help but ponder what will happen when the barrelling Toulon powerhouse runs into the rookie international midfield of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw. The pair could be in for a Six Nations baptism of fire.

Bastareaud's ball exceptional carrying helped to undo the Scots and if Henshaw and Payne can curb his threat it will go a long way to ensuring an Irish success.

French flair?

Before last March's tournament-deciding clash the French had been a pale shadow of themselves with no evidence of the creative ingenuity that we have come accustomed to.

Wooden spoon recipients in 2013's competition and a disappointing campaign pre-Ireland led many to believe that an Irish victory was a mere formality.

France's prop Uini Atonio is blocked during the Six Nations international rugby union match between France and Scotland, at the Stade de France
France's prop Uini Atonio is blocked during the Six Nations international rugby union match between France and Scotland, at the Stade de France

However, the aristocrats of free flowing rugby produced a stunning display in Paris and had it not been for a late forward pass they would have spoiled the Irish party.

With only one Irish victory in their last seven meetings, and no win at the Aviva Stadium, the home side has often struggled to cope with the erratic dynamism of the French backs.

The French often keep their best displays in reserve for the Irish and it will be interesting to see if the creativity of the likes Teddy Thomas and Morgan Parra produce something special or whether they continue to produce tepid displays under Saint-Andre.

All's changed, changed utterly

A year is a long time in professional sport and with the high attrition rates associated with modern rugby, both sides, France in particular, look unrecognisable from the last time they locked horns.

The French side named to take on Joe Schmidt's side contains only five starters from last year's epic with only Yoann Huget, Pascal Pape, Yoann Maestri, Damien Chouly and Bastareaud retaining their places.

Out are the likes of Maxime Machenaud, Alexandre Lapandry and Louis Picamoles but there are some noticeable additions including former world player of the year Thierry Dusautoir and talented backs Wesley Fofana and aforementioned Thomas.

dusatoir.jpg
French captain Thierry Dusatoir

Ireland too are all change with O'Driscoll retiring, Gordon D'Arcy on the fringes while two of last year's great success stories Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney are both recovering from injury.

This has led to the blooding of new faces such as Simon Zebo, Henshaw and Payne.

Tommy Bowe and Sean O'Brien were both missing in Paris, but both are fit and expected to play a huge part in the tie.

Take a chance on me

Irish fly-half Jonathan Sexton was central to much of his side's play in the 2014 game bagging two tries but his kicking was well-below its usual standard and a couple of missed kicks nearly proved costly.

Sexton has not had a competitive contest in 12 weeks having been forced to the sidelines after four serious concussions in the last 12 months and his lack of game time must be a worry for the Irish.

Ian Keatley is expected to make way for last year's top Six Nations point-scorer as Sexton is chief orchestrator of the Irish band but with worries about match sharpness, his kicking will be under its closest scrutiny yet.

With only two points between the sides in Paris, Jean-Marc Doussain spurned a glorious match-winning kick and Camille Lopez, who kicked all 15 points at the Stade de France last weekend, is the latest arrival in the merry-go-round at number 10.

Morgan Parra's tactical nous is expected to be called upon if the game hangs in the balance and Keatley or Madigan are likely to be needed to finish the game strongly for the Irish.

Seeing stars

Sexton's concussion woes originated from Bastareaud's 68th minute bulldozing charge and trailing forearm which hit his 'sweet spot' and have severely hampered his playing time in the intervening period.

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Jonathan Sexton, Ireland, is tackled by Mathieu Bastareaud, France

The Racing Metro kicker was being treated and assessed by concussion specialist Jean-Francois Chermann, a French expert who works with Racing and Stade Francais as an independent neurologist.

With worries over the fitness of Rory Best as he completes the Return to Play protocol after a concussion against Italy and the exclusion of George North from the Welsh side to face Scotland after suffering a similar fate brain injuries are to the fore at present.

The Dubliner's injury comes full circle on Sunday when Sexton plays against many of his club team mates hoping to have happier memories than last year's starry finale.

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