Preview: Ireland v France

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 07:18
Large rory best and joe schmidt with six nations trophy 800

SIX NATIONS ROUND THREE: rugby365's acclaimed writer Paul Dobson takes a look at the key encounter between Ireland and France in Dublin on Saturday.

Generalisation has it that the Irish are predictable, predictably seeking to terrorise the opposition into making mistakes; the French unpredictable in their flair, the romantics of the game.

But then William Blake said: "To generalise is to be an idiot."

The Irish can be as smooth and sophisticated as the best of them, while the French can be - and often are - as dull as ditch water.

And both teams are capable of the great victory.

Just a few months ago Ireland did what seemed impossible - beat the invincible All Blacks and they did it on neutral ground, in Chicago.

And who would ever forget that World Cup semifinal at Twickenham in 1999 when France ran the legs off the All Blacks and left them bewildered and beaten?

Last year France played 10 times and scored 21 tries.

Ireland did better - 36 tries in 12 matches.

So the truth is that anything can happen in Dublin when these two sides meet in Round Three of the Six Nations.

It would be surprising if it was boring.

There are too many star players for it to be boring and too many interesting match-ups.

Players to watch

For Ireland: Conor Murray. Any team would benefit from having Conor Murray - strong, decisive, accurate, skilled, fearless on attack and defence, calm, fast of hand and foot, with a telling boot and break. He is always worth watching. Whoever is the half outside of him does well - whether it's Jonny Sexton or Paddy Jackson. More and more the Irish backs have thrived on the ball that originates from an enthusiastic pack and the service that brings the ball into play. Fullback Rob Kearney is worth watching - fearless, his greatest delight is to run with the ball where more circumspect fullbacks would hoof the ball to the opposition. If one were to choose players from the packs, Christiaan Stander an expat South African, would be the first choice amongst the Irish, a strong man with skills, the first forward in Six Nations history to score a hat-trick of tries - in the thrashing of Italy in Round Two. The other Irish forward who stands out is tall (2,11m) Devin Toner who may just be the most underrated forward in the Six Nations, adding more than just line-outs to his contribution to his team.

For France: Scott Spedding, like his Irish counterpart, is a fearless man, whose greatest delight is to also run with the ball where more circumspect fullbacks would hoof the ball to the opposition. When a ball is kicked to him there is a frisson of excitement at the ground, especially audible when France play in Paris. There are four excellent centres on view, energetic men, but perhaps it is 22-year-old Gaël Fickou, who first played for France at the age of 19, who most catches the eye - tall, strong, fast and skilled, a clever player who can use small techniques to good effect. A player of interest is new scrumhalf Baptiste Serin. He is 22 and looks 14, but has the energy and skill of a great player. Remember his pass that sent Picamoles over for a try against the All Blacks last November? Louis Picamoles is the stand-out French forward - big and strong, always getting his team going forward.

Head to Head: Rob Kearney versus Scott Spedding, Jonny Sexton versus Camille Lopez, the collision of strong men in the centre, Robbie Henshaw and Gaël Fickou, Christiaan Stander versus Louis Picamoles, two tough men, Rory Best versus Guilhem Guirado, hooker and captain versus hooker and captain, both energetic players. There are also interesting contests out on the wings - the bigger French wings against the nimbler Irish wings. This really is a match to look forward to, and they have Nigel Owens to help the players to produce their best.

Common Opponents in the Last Four Months
Australia: Ireland beat them 27-24; France lost to them 25-23
New Zealand: Ireland beat them 40-29 and lost to them 21-9; France lost to them 24-19
Scotland: Ireland lost to them 27-22; France beat them 22-16

Recent results:
2016: France won 10-9, Paris
2015: Ireland won 24-9, Cardiff (World Cup pool match)
2015: Ireland won 18-11, Dublin
2014: Ireland won 22-20, Paris
2013: France and Ireland drew 13-all, Dublin
2012: Ireland and France drew 17-all, 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

Overall
Played: 95
France won 56
Ireland won 32
Draws: Seven

Ireland won the first six matches between 1909 and 1914.

Prediction: Taking recent history and the analysis of the two teams into consideration, we believe that Ireland will win by two or three points in a high-scoring match. But France will win at the singing of the anthems.

Teams

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Christiaan Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O'Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 22 Andrew Trimble.

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Louis Picamoles, 6 Bernard Le Roux, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (captain), 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julien Le Devedec, 20 Charles Ollivon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Henry Chavancy, 23 Djibril Camara.

Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 16.50 (17.50 French time; 16.50 GMT)
Expected weather: It could be worse but it's a pretty miserable day as it is, with a strong chance of rain, a high of 8°C and a low of 6°C
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

By Paul Dobson
@rugby365com

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Team P W D L Pts
England 5 4 0 1 19
Ireland 5 3 0 2 14
France 5 3 0 2 14
Scotland 5 3 0 2 14
Wales 5 2 0 3 10
Italy 5 0 0 5 0