Saturday 16 December 2017

Crunch Six Nations clash: Title is on the line along with World Cup seeding

Return of Sexton and home advantage swings pivotal tie in Schmidt's side's favour as Six Nations race heats up

Ireland's Rory Best
Ireland's Rory Best
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If Ireland's Six Nations is to be a success, they must beat France today. Thankfully, Joe Schmidt is finally able to call on his on-pitch general for the job and has as strong a squad available to him as he has had for some time.

But if things go awry, the impact could be felt down the road. Defeat today would see Schmidt's side topple out of the top four of the World Rugby rankings with just two games to go to until the 2019 World Cup pool draw is made in May.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

Ireland's current position of fourth is precious as it makes them top-seeds for the pool draw and Wales and France are both lurking, ready to leapfrog them this weekend if results go their way. So, the pressure is on and the stakes are high.

Back in Dublin after two trips away, there is an acknowledgement from players and coaches that their opening-day defeat to Scotland has rendered every game from here on in must-win and while they will continue to concentrate on the minutiae of getting the job done they are not shying away from the importance of the result.

Rome was restorative in terms of confidence and goodwill, but Murrayfield and Chicago remain the reference points for this team.

Since Schmidt took over, there has been much talk about the desire for consistency and the coach's win-loss ratio is impressive, but 2016 was a year of vacillation between the highs and lows and that has continued into the new year.

That transition is now at an end and today's match-day squad is arguably the strongest Schmidt has been able to name since the 2015 World Cup pool game against the same opposition.

If, as seems unlikely, Ireland get through the day unscathed the return of Jared Payne to Ulster's bench today will mean that all of the IRFU's centrally contracted players are available for the first time in years. It is an exciting prospect.


The problem is that few teams leave a body count in their wake quite like the brutish French who are improving under Guy Noves.

Ireland have had the upper hand in this fixture in recent years, but it has always taken a toll. The power of the specimens in the pack combined with the pace of those outside them is a frightening prospect, but for so long the French have struggled to link the two.

Directionless coaching and a lack of control at half-back have undermined them, but there are signs of real progress under Noves who appears to have galvanised them.

They were able to rest last weekend, while the Toulouse legend has also settled on a regular pairing at Nos 9 and 10 of Baptiste Serin and Camille Lopez that seems to be working well. Serin is a team-mate of Ian Madigan at Bordeaux and this week the former Leinster out-half spoke of his talent.

"Baptiste is a really special player," he said. "Deceptively very quick, he has a fast pass, a very accurate pass, he gets to the breakdown really quickly, he is fit, he can box-kick off both feet, loves a quick tap and he has got real flair - he can pull a rabbit out of his hat - he is one of those guys in training that regularly has guys standing still and saying, 'That was incredible.'

"He is someone that Ireland definitely have to keep a close eye. He is a scrum-half that weighs up his options, he is not just thinking service, he is a threat himself."

Yet, for all of that, it is Ireland's half-backs who hold the aces today.

Conor Murray and the returning Johnny Sexton are arguably the finest pairing in the game and their ability to combine well, to out-think and outmanoeuvre the French will be key.

There is a familiar feeling about the sight of the St Mary's man making another return from injury against his old friends whose protestations that they haven't been thinking too much about him ring a little hollow.

His ability to hit the ground running has been tried and tested and he knows how much of the spotlight hangs over him and his troublesome legs.

When he has played this season, he has been excellent and Ireland are undoubtedly a better team with him on board, while he allows Murray more freedom to play his own game.

Murray and Sexton will need good ball to thrive, however, and Ireland must gain parity at least at set-piece to get the upper hand. France's scrum is impressive and they bring plenty of impact off the bench with Eddy Ben Arous looking to reprise his match-winning cameo from last season against another relatively untested tighthead in John Ryan.

Last year it was Tadhg Furlong who buckled under the strain of the Racing 92 powerhouse, but 12 months on the Wexford man is a different beast and forms part of an Ireland front-row that is formidable in its own right.

They've done well so far, but the prospect of packing down against Cyrille Baille, Guilhem Guirado and Rabah Slimani is a step up in class.

McGrath, however, has vowed to attack the French scrum.

"They're two quality guys," he said of Slimani and replacement tighthead Uini Atonio. "They've been really good in the scrum and on the attack.

"You can see the skill level with both of the lads, they're really dangerous in two different ways. Slimani is a little bit shorter than Atonio and they've two different techniques, so that's something I've had to play with this week and try and replicate and not just focus on their strengths, our scrum is going well as well.

"So, it's up to us to attack them and not just wait for them."

There is much for captain Rory Best to consider. Winning keeps the show on the road, while a four-try bonus point would make Ireland's title ambitions more realistic as England prepare to fill their boots at home to Italy and an injury-plagued Scotland in the two games before they come searching for a Grand Slam in Dublin.

Eight points from wins over France and Wales would keep the World Cup seedings in line and give Ireland a hope on the final day, but a ninth would make the mission against Eddie Jones' juggernaut all the more manageable.

Since the beginning of the season, it has been notable that Best has been ultra-positive when offered kickable penalties early on, opting to go for the jugular.

Despite the rising stakes, he has committed to staying positive.

"We want to stay attacking, it's something that's we've tried to push, definitely this season, and even last season in those last two games we really tried to push that attacking mindset.

"Every penalty, we'll judge the merits of it, we'll balance it up and I suppose we'll either go for the corner or go for the posts, accordingly.

"But certainly it's something that we want to be encouraging, we want to be a team that is attacking and constantly looking to apply pressure.

"That might be scoreboard pressure with attempting to go for the posts, or it might just be field position, territorial pressure, trying to stay in their 22 and try to build more of a lead by scoring a try."


However, with the forecast promising difficult conditions and the French spending plenty of time preparing for Ireland's dynamic trio of back-rows, it will be an uncompromising afternoon.

"It is their ability to play fast and well," Yannick Bru said of the combination of CJ Stander, Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip who will match up to Bernard Le Roux, Kevin Fourdon and the in-form Louis Picamoles.

"Their speed, skills, they are fast and very skilled and there is not many mistakes, and when we work on the intensity of the game it's always a good performance.

"We will try to fight them with our defence, we know it will be a big challenge."

Schmidt, meanwhile, is impressed by the French loose forwards and the weapons Noves has kept in reserve.

"The front-row is going to be a real battle and I think the back-row is going to be a real battle as well, (Charles) Ollivon coming off the bench - I think he's about 6ft 6ins. He's a big, big man. So they're going to bring some very big humans off the bench and that's going to be a real challenge for us."

Ireland's bench is built for impact too, however, and with Cian Healy, Peter O'Mahony, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble ready to supplement the effort during the second half, the bench looks strong enough to guide Ireland home and the starting XV should put them in position.

It might not be pretty, but the result is paramount.

Irish Independent

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