Against all logic, if not quite all odds, France are still in with a shout of winning the Six Nations Championship. They have impressed precisely no one with their performances and yet, coming into the final game of the tournament against Ireland in Paris, they have played four, won three. Somehow. So they could yet maintain that weird record of winning the Six Nations tournament that follows a Lions tour.
It’s surely no surprise that Philippe Saint-Andre has rung the changes after last weekend’s limp to victory at Murrayfield. Among the seven changes he has made, Louis Picamoles comes back from purdah but will play at blindside, while Dimitri Szarzewski returns to the starting line-up, with Brice Mach dropping out of the squad altogether following his Edinburgh nightmare.
Another player paying the price for poor performances is fly-half Jules Plisson. He’s also out of the squad. His place has been taken by Castres’ Remi Tales, with Jean-Marc Doussain on the bench ready to replace either him or Maxime Machenaud at nine. Gael Fickou finally gets a starting slot, too, at 12, alongside Mathieu Bastareaud.
Despite all the changes, most of them strangely logical for Philippe Saint-André, the big question remains: is there really method in this French team’s apparent rugby madness? Ongoing rumours of a rift in the French camp suggest not – Nicolas Mas stormed out of a press conference on Tuesday when one journalist asked if Les Bleus were playing badly on purpose.
But Ireland’s assistant coach Les Kiss claims there could well be. He called it, with typically wonderful Irish lyricism, “a dishevelled place of chaos”, but argues that a meticulous “forensic” examination of the frankly frantic and bonkers French play reveals a gameplan designed to look shambolic but that actually offers plenty of attacking options.
Wouldn’t it be just so typically French for Les Bleus to slip the shackles on the final day of the Six Nations and play in the manner we like to imagine French teams played against every other team but the one we’re rooting for?
Let’s start with some good news: Leinster battering ram Cian Healy has recovered from an ankle injury and will play on Saturday. Peter O’Mahony also returns after his troublesome hamstring forced him to sit out the Ireland game.
Ireland have been the team to watch this Six Nations. They have played some truly astonishing rugby at times, and it is for this reason that the temptation to make other changes – such as bringing in Simon Zebo or Tommy Bowe, as has been called for in some quarters – has been avoided.
Now some bad news: history is against the Irish. They haven’t actually won in France since 2000. They have only won four games in Paris since the Second World War; and their only win in their last 14 encounters was on that remarkable day in Dublin in 2009, when Brian O’Driscoll (who else?) and Gordon D’Arcy had the Irish daring to believe their first Grand Slam in 60 years was within reach.
All eyes on
No contest. Brian O’Driscoll. It seems somehow fitting that arguably the best centre the rugby world has ever seen makes his final bow on the same stage where he came of age with that remarkable hat-trick of tries back in 2000. It will be his 133rd appearance for the Irish and his 141st international. Will he be able to add to his tally of 46 tries? Wouldn’t that – and one final Six Nations title – be the perfect way to end a career?
Not quite opposite him but in the same vicinity, Gael Fickou is finally trusted to start for France. He may be just 19, but seemed the most natural successor to Fofana when he got injured. Naturally, then, he was overlooked, and it took another abject international performance from Maxime Mermoz for Saint-André to seemingly realise his mistake, and he now starts in the final game of the tournament. Do not be fooled by his youth; Fickou has performed on the big stage before.
Head to head: Brian O’Driscoll v Mathieu Bastareaud
BOD may well have hoped for a less combative opponent to face in his farewell international than France’s blunt instrument. But Bastareaud is who he has got. He has faced better, if not necessarily bigger, centres before, and while the O’Driscoll legs aren’t quite as fleet as they used to be, the rugby brain is still plenty quick enough to find a way round the larger-than-life French centre.
This one is so difficult to call. Although Ireland’s dismal record in Paris shouldn’t play on anyone’s minds, it will. But it’s also BOD’s final fling. The Irish team, the country and many a neutral would love to see him sign off with another championship title to his name.
Assuming England do their bit and win in Rome, France will need to find a way through the well-drilled Irish defence and rack up a cricket score if they are to steal the Six Nations title from under everyone’s noses.
That’s surely beyond this French team, who have yet to play full game of rugby. In fact, beating this Ireland side should be beyond this French team, let alone scoring lots of points while doing so. That said, if the unthinkable does happen and England do come a cropper in Rome, all bets are off… Ireland by 3.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images