Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Dave Pearson
After some early troubles last weekend in the lineout and the scrum, France raced away from a dogged Italy in the second half, ultimately cruising to victory without really needing to hit top gear. Four tries for four of their backs showed a sharp attacking edge, whilst the changes this weekend bringing in Poux, Szarzewski, Maestri and Harinordoquy fix the set-piece problems from last week.
Last week I said their form was patchy, and I think the same word still applies. Just 4 wins in the last 10 games, 2 of those against Russia and the USA, suggest all may not be well within the camp. It also proves that the sum is not always as good as the parts (Ulster, Munster and Leinster), whose form and predominately Ireland-qualified make-up should see Ireland pushing for the tournament rather than facing a must win game in Round 2.
What to Expect:
Just the one change from last weekend’s side, with Keith Earls returning after his daughter’s illness to replace the disappointing Fergus McFadden. Gordon D’Arcy and he will need to shore up the porous defence so effectively exploited by Davies and Roberts last weekend. Offensively, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, Ireland need to set the base at the set-piece and create quick ball to allow the undoubted ability of Trimble, Bowe and Kearney the chance to wreak some havoc.
One thing is for sure, the young bucks at half back need to tactically boss their opposite numbers to have even a remote chance of coming back from Paris with a rare win. France have the physicality and speed to recycle quick ball and catch Ireland off balance. D’Arcy will undoubtedly be targeted by one of the many big French runners.
Head-to-Head: Louis Picamoles v Sean O’Brien
Two men wearing 7 who are not natural opensides, Picamoles & O’Brien are both blessed with natural power. Picamoles’s good form continued last weekend with his excellent break off the back of the scrum setting up Julien Malzieu’s try. The balance of Dusautoir’s subtle skill, Harinodoquy’s aerial prowess and Picamoles’ athleticism in the back row is perfect.
Sean O’Brien showed signs last week in the first half that he was coming to terms with the needs of a top level 7. Sam Warburton was kept quiet by O’Brien, and others it must be said, and with him coming off injured at half time, O’Brien should have had the armoury to make the Welsh feel the disadvantage. That he didn’t was the surprise. This week he faces a different challenge. O’Brien has to have a major influence on the game for Ireland to have a chance. France’s pack is intimidating and strong, and any disruption to their ball in the loose, with the consequences that could provoke, will need to come from O’Brien.
One to Watch: Morgan Parra & Rory Best
Lose Yachvili, bring in Parra. Hardly the most painful of replacements. The addition of the Clermont scrum-half reunites the half back pairing that won the 2010 Grand Slam in combining him with François Trinh-Duc. Brilliant with the boot whether in open play of off the tee, Parra is a world class talent. How lucky are France to have two great players in one position?
Possibly the most in-form of Ireland’s plethora of stars, the relatively unsung Rory Best was an unlucky try-scoring loser last Sunday against Wales. The unassuming Best has become the best hooker in Britain, and I was looking forward to a great battle between he and William Servat until Philippe Saint-Andre spoiled that for me. Best does everything well. His line-out is as a line-out should be, hitting his jumpers consistently with little fuss. He tackles well, carries well and has good hands. If the Lions were playing tomorrow, he would be a shoe-in for the number 2 shirt. As it is, he needs to perform and help the experienced line-out jumpers provide the forward platform which would give Ireland a sniff of a victory.
Ireland’s team is not bad by any means, but it just does not have the same quality as the home side. If France get momentum early on with a first try, then this could be a thrashing. It’s all about continuation and playing the game in the right areas. With a back row capable to dominate any side in the world, possession should be no issue. France by 15 points. BC
Try as I might, I just cannot see Ireland getting anything from this one. At the tournament’s start, I saw this being the one game that Declan Kidney’s men lost, and given the performances of both sides last week, given the strength of the French pack and given the pace and invention behind the scrum, I see a French win by 10-12 points. MB