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Preview: France v Ireland

Fri, 14 Mar 2014 06:27
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How does one predict for the unpredictable?

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Gauls against Gaels. It is the last of 2014's Six Nations matches and Paris will certainly be the focus of attention.

By then England will have played - and probably beaten - Italy.

Unusually, they will be backing France with great fervour.

If it is a victory for France or, better still, the third draw in a row between France and Ireland, England will rejoice at winning the Championship, which they probably deserve, for after all they were a better side than France who scored more points than they did when they met this year.

A win for Ireland will probably secure them the Championship on points' difference, unless England have a huge win over Italy.

France must have a chance of winning, too, but it would take a miracle of gigantic proportions, like moving Montmatre. Italy would have to beat England for starters and France would have to beat Ireland.  

In the Six Nations, Ireland have scored 81 more points than their opponents in their four matches, England 32 points more and France three points more.

To top Ireland, England would have to beat Italy by more than 49 points, which is not impossible.

By the time the Paris match gets under way, the England position will be clear. Let's say that both France and Ireland are equally intent on victory and that Ireland need only to win to win the Championship and burst out with three days of celebration ending on St Patrick's Day.

That could produce a great match.

There would then be an intense battle up front. At the scrums, there would be a great battle between the front rows and one hopes that the surface of Stade de France can stand up to it better than when they played Italy there. The battle at the scrums has a huge effect on team morale and loose forward agility.

In an equal battle between loose forwards, Ireland could well have the beating of France, especially now that marauding Peter O'Mahony is back. Big Louis Picamoles is back, on the flank this time, but more of a muscle man than a clever poacher. In fact Ireland have a better record at the breakdowns in this year's Six Nations.

They also have a better record at the line-outs, losing just four out of 61 throws into the line-out. Out of 10 line-outs against Scotland France lost three and threw in skew three times. But then Brice Mach has been dropped right out and Dimitri Szarzewski is hooking with Guilhem Guirado to back him up.

Ireland have the much more settled pair of halfbacks in Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray while France have chopped and changed. One would expect Ireland to be better here with Sexton to dictate play. France will be hoping for a more charismatic performance from Rémi Tales after the shyness of Julien Plisson.

In the backs Ireland pass more than France who kick more than Ireland but there is in the outside backs speed and creativity if it is allowed to function though here, too, Ireland look more settled and cohesive. Ireland have scored 13 tries to the seven of France.

Discipline counts. Ireland have conceded under seven penalties a match on an average, France more than eight.

Goal-kicking counts. Sexton is a more reliable kicker than France's Maxime Machenaud, Jean-Marc Doussain and Rémi Tales. Ireland have goaled 15 out of 19, France 10 out of 15 - 79% vs 67%.

Players to Watch:

For France: Amongst French backs you would want to see Yoann Huget, the man with a eye for a chance and a dedicated defender, will-o-the-wisp fullback Brice Dulin and teenager Gaël Fickou at inside centre. Amongst the forwards there are busy Dimitri Szarzewski and strong Louis Picamoles to watch on the French side and Peter O'Mahony and bustling Cian Healy on the Irish side.

For Ireland: Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland. After all this may well be his last Test in a magnificent career, and in this Six Nations he has been as brilliant as ever - tackling, running and creating opportunities for others. In last week's match he created three of Ireland's tries. And he does it all with that quiet smile of enjoyment. He is, of course, one of the greatest rugby players of all times. It would be so silly not to watch him in this match. And with him is his trust centre mate, Gordon D'Arcy, bearded and playing possibly his best rugby. You would watch Rob Kearney - so brave, so daring, so strong, so fast - the player who has run further with the ball than any other player in the Six Nations. You would watch Jonathan Sexton so calm and in control.

Head to Head: There are units in opposition that could make a difference - front rows against front rows, halfbacks and against halfbacks, loose trio against loose trio, and centres against centres. And there are individual contests. Brian O'Driscoll, all skill and cleverness, against big, one-dimensional Mathieu Bastareaud. Veteran Gordon D'Arcy against teenager Gaël Fickou. Yoann Huget vs Dave Kearney. Huget is likely to find Kearney a tough opponent and one who is hard to bring down. The locks could have an interesting tussle at line-outs - Paul O'Connell and tall Devin Toner against Yoann Maestri and Pascal Papé.

Recent results:
2013: France and Ireland drew 13-13, Dublin
2012: France and Ireland drew 17-17, Paris
2011: France won 26-22, Dublin
2011: France won 19-12, Bordeaux
2011: France won 25-22, Dublin
2010: France won 33-10, Paris
2009: Ireland won 30-21, Dublin
2008: France won 26-21, Paris
2007: France won 25-3, Paris (World Cup pool match)
2007: France won 20-17, Dublin

Prediction: How does one predict for the unpredictable? Ireland are predictable and will be going flat out for their first win in Paris since 2000. Before that it was 1972, before that 1952 and before that 1948 - the four Irish victories in Paris since World War II. The 2000 victory was at Stade de France; the other three were at Stade Yves-du-Manoir in the suburb of Colombes. But - lift up Irish hearts - the last match in Paris, at elegant Stade de France - was a draw -17-all. But will the French go flat out? Will they give their shoulders a Gallic shrug and blow rejection from twisted faces when they are again booed by the home crowd? Or will they suddenly play as Frenchmen used to play - with verve, passion and flair? If French nonchalance is the order of the day, Ireland will win by more than 15. But if France play with romance and intent, France will win by about 10. It is an intriguing match, and, intrigued, our prediction is an Irish victory by about five points in a thriller as France fall away after a passionate start.

Teams

France: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Rémi Tales, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Louis Picamoles, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé (captain), 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Rabah Slimani, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 21 Wenceslas Lauret, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Maxime Mermoz.

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (captain), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fergus McFadden.

Date: Saturday 15 March 2014
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 18.00 (GMT 17.00; 17.00 UK time)
Expected weather: Clear skies with little to no chance of rain. Hi of 15°C and a low of 5°C
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)

By Paul Dobson

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