Facing what without doubt is the hardest fixture for any side in the Six Nations championship, Ireland travel to Paris knowing that they will have to match the power they produced against Australia at the Rugby World Cup.
With only four wins against the French in Paris since the Second World War, history is not on Ireland’s side. The last victory on French soil came in 2000 with that remarkable hat-trick from Brian O’Driscoll, whose absence from this tournament has left a mark. The reason behind this is not so much in attack, with the Irish great the first to admit the legs do not hold as much spring as they used to, but for his work rate in defence. Against Australia at the Rugby World Cup, the Irish wall missed only 7 tackles in the whole match, producing countless scrums and penalties at the breakdown by slowing down Wallaby possession.
The dominance in the scrum saw the front five win Ireland five penalties, all leading to points coming off Ronan O’Gara’s boot. If Ireland are to have any chance of winning in Paris, they have to overcome Jean-Baptise Poux and Nicolas Mas, the two spearheads of a scrummaging unit powered from behind by Yoann Maestri that struggled against Italy but last weekend at Murrayfield won four penalties, conceding none.
Paul O’Connell’s brutal authority was stamped all over the Wallabies that night in Auckland, but with Donnacha Ryan itching to be given a start the pressure is on the old guard of O’Connell and Donnacha O’Callaghan to produce the fire that has faded as the years have passed. If they can attack the French lineout there is the chance of the occasional error, with Les Blues losing five lineouts so far in two matches. Ireland by contrast have lost only one of 13 on their own throw.
One area where Ireland do have power is in the back row. The balance might not be perfect in the unit of Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, but you will struggle to find a more physical back three in Test rugby. France struggled with Scotland’s powerful runs last weekend, missing 26 tackles in total, so Johnny Sexton has to get them running in midfield from quick ball at the base.
It was at the breakdown that despite winning comfortably last weekend against Italy, Ireland managed to concede an unacceptable 8 penalties, hence Rory Best speaking this week about need to tighten up. At the same time, that sizeable back row trio will have to help Gordon D’Arcy and Keith Earls quell the explosiveness of Wesley Fofana and Aurélien Rougerie in the centre, an area Phillipe Saint-André will no doubt have targeted in training this week.
If Ireland can stop the big men from getting over the gain line and contest the ball on the floor, whilst stealing the occasional lineout and winning some key penalties up front, then they will have a chance. The level of their physicality is everything. It is a mammoth task.
by Ben Coles