Venue: Stade de France
Referee: Dave Pearson
After not fully firing against Scotland last week, with particular concern as to how France were outmuscled at the breakdown and in the loose, Phillipe Saint-André as a result has brought in the guile of Julian Bonnaire at openside flanker, sacrificing the big runs of Louis Picamoles. The other change is enforced, with Maxime Médard cruelly ruled out for 9 months after damaging knee ligaments. His replacement is Clément Poitrenaud, playing for his country for the first time in over a year.
One swallow does not a summer make. A victory against Italy, similar in its creation to that during the World Cup with a vast improvement in the second half, means 5 wins out of 10 for Ireland now, but as I said last week, only 1 of those is against a Top 10 side, and with respect to Italy, France away is a much stiffer task than the Italians at home. The vast majority of this side need to step up at least two gears to have a chance.
What to Expect:
France to play with the type of quick ball that makes other nations cry. Last week against Scotland, despite being in an arm wrestle for 80 minutes, the speed with which the ball was recycled was astonishing. Now that they have another breakdown expert on the field in Julian Bonnaire, this will be maintained. The multitude of handling errors last weekend, 6 from France but 11 from Scotland, prevented any momentum from being created by either side, but that shouldn’t be the case against Ireland.
I’ve given up trying to second guess Declan Kidney, though with his stubborn nature you should be able to read his tactics like a book. The kicking game, particularly of Murray, needs to be much tighter than last week if they are to build territory, and I perceive Clément Poitrenaud as a weak link for the French, so I think a few very high balls for Trimble to get underneath at the same time as the Toulouse full back may be the order of the day. O’Connell and co must provide the usual solid line-out ball and at least hold their own in the scrum, otherwise this could turn nasty.
All Eyes On: Clément Poitrenaud v Conor Murray
Who else? With Médard playing well so far this tournament, (you only need the miffed reactions from fans at having to change their fantasy teams for proof as a result of his injury), the pressure is on Poitrenaud to offer the same threat in attack, but also to remain solid under the high ball. It’s impossible to mention his name without remembering that nightmare moment against Wasps, which at the same time makes it easy to forget that he is a very successful player with both club and country.
After a decidedly average performance, no make that awful, against Italy, many expected Eoan Reddan to start in Paris, and the surprise sprung by Declan Kidney to start with “his man” Murray is massive. Up against possibly the best fit scrum half in Europe on current form in Morgan Parra, he simply has to perform and provide quick ball to the Irish backs, allowing them to strike with pace, otherwise the French back row of Dusautoir, Bonnaire and Harinordoquy will provide an imposing welcoming committee for Earls and D’Arcy in the centre. I’m loathe to say he is drinking at the last chance saloon (for now) but as England proved with the jettisoning of Youngs for Dickson, change is sometimes overdue. A highly defensive selection for me, and Murray will have had easier Sundays than await in St Denis.
Head to Head: Julien Bonnaire vs. Sean O’Brien
Bonnaire admitted this week on being restored to the national side that he was due to retire after the end of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but the pain of defeat in the final inspired him to carry on. It’s a great decision for his country, because for Clermont since he returned from New Zealand he has been outstanding. Sunday will be his 72nd test, and at 33 he is getting on, but his commitment and power have always gone unnoticed and deserve acclaim.
Sean O’Brien against Julien Bonnaire is an interesting battle. When in club jerseys, this would be 8 against 6, but on Sunday both will line up with 7 on their back. We are getting ever used to not seeing the rampaging loose work of O’Brien for Ireland, as he is time and time again the last man up from the bottom of the breakdown. To such an extent, that many would replace him at 7 with O’Mahony and move him to 6 in place of the equally talented Ferris, 8 in place of the slightly down on his form Heaslip, or the bench as an impact replacement for one of the above two. Against Bonnaire he has a chance to once more show that he can do the openside’s job, though given the current form of this side, you wonder how many chances you can justify.
If Ireland are to win in Paris, their pack must be unstoppable, much in the same way as they were against Australia in the World Cup. Muting France is not easy; Scotland gave it their best effort last week and still came up short. France though have the players to quell any Irish threat, plus on home turf and after a rollicking from Saint-André, the win should come. France by 8. BC
I couldn’t see an Irish win a few weeks ago, and I can’t see one now. Both sides are reluctant to play this game this week, but I expect the intensity to be there as ever. France though have the home advantage, the form players in Poux, Dusautoir, Parra and Fofana and the knowledge that they are building towards a Grand Slam decider with Wales in Cardiff. France by 12 points. MB
by Ben Coles & Mark Bonsall