It is fair to say the 2013 championships haven’t really gone according to plan for Ireland or France so far. France are without a win in their last three and Ireland, after starting the championship at blistering pace against Wales, have now slipped to back to back defeats leaving Declan Kidney staring at the exit in D4. Who could have predicted these sides would meet with the loser looking at a possible wooden spoon in the last round of matches?
Reasons to back Ireland
A disappointing defeat at Murrayfield, questions over the form and captaincy of Jamie Heaslip and distracting speculation over the respective futures of Declan Kidney and Ronan O’Gara – not to mention their dismal recent record against the French – mean Ireland approach this encounter in hope rather than expectation. France have their own troubles, but by my reckoning Ireland remain underdogs in Dublin. On the flip side, there are a number of Irish players with points to prove. Relative newcomers and experienced campaigners alike, they’re all playing for their futures at this stage in the competition, especially if Declan Kidney’s tenure comes to an end. They should need no more incentive to turn in a performance.
It wasn’t difficult to pinpoint the main reason for their loss to Scotland. Ireland created chance after chance, but failed to convert these opportunities. With 75% possession and up to 86% territory they should have been out of sight before half-time. A more clinical performance is required with Luke Marshall, a bright debutant against the Scots, a potentially key man alongside O’Driscoll in the midfield. Paddy Jackson continues at out-half and Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden, replacing Craig Gilroy, are on the wings.
Cian Healy returns following his ban for a nasty stamp on Dan Cole two rounds previously. Apparently humbled by the adverse reaction to his stray boot, Healy hopes to put aside that unsavoury chapter at least until he meets Cole on the Lions tour. He rejects accusations that he’s a dirty player, and will front up against a strong French pack. His return not only strengthens the Irish scrum, but alongside O’Brien, Healy is one of Ireland’s most destructive ball carriers and his tackle count will be as high as any front-row forward.
Reasons to back France
Most people picked France for the Championship before it all kicked off, and certainly not many could have predicted they’d come to Dublin still looking for their first win. As is typically the case when France can’t find form, inconsistency and unpredictability become buzz words in the media. Saint-Andre has come under intense scrutiny. His continued persistence with Freddie Michalak at fly-half and his decision to select his outstanding centre, Wesley Fofana, on the wing were baffling to say the least. However, he’s since corrected one of those costly errors and there were signs of improvement at Twickenham two weeks ago. Given their recent record against the Irish it would be unwise not to make them favourites.
Saint-Andre has outwardly said he’ll settle for a win by any margin, even the most tedious of victories on Saturday. Contrary to traditional French methods, this isn’t a team which possesses the flamboyance and flair of the teams of old. Instead their main area of strength lies in the pack, unchanged from the England game, and with Morgan Parra marshalling proceedings behind his eight.
Saint-Andre has again rotated his half-back pairing ahead of the clash, but reminds us that all four options have played together as a combination in each of their last nine internationals. Morgan Parra and Freddie Michalak, who will share the kicking duties, are given the nod for Dublin. They last started a test together against Samoa in November, and while Michalak has been heavily criticised during these championships their experience cannot be questioned, particularly with the novice Jackson on the opposite side. Michalak divides opinion but remains a talented footballer, capable of sublime moments of genius which can turn a game on its head, regardless of what position he’s selected. In a tight game, his contribution could prove pivotal, or fatal.
France’s record against the Irish makes them favourites, despite their woeful form. They simply must come good at some point. Ireland’s mixture of youthful exuberance and experienced campaigners could be excellent, but at the moment there are too many questions surround the team and the coach. It could be a miserable day for them. France by 12.
By David Blair