France target Irish back row, not Sexton
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: It is not Ireland's standout flyhalf Johnny Sexton who is France's major headache but their back row, French forwards coach Yannick Bru admitted on the eve of Saturday's Six Nations clash at Lansdowne Road.
The 31-year-old playmaker - who is making his return to action after five weeks on the sidelines with a calf injury - was the subject of some heavy hits in the 9-10 defeat last year in Paris which left the Irish camp furious at the inaction of the match officials.
However, Bru - who has been in his post since 2012 - said targeting Sexton had proved costly in the past.
"Each time we targeted him we made big mistakes and we won't make that error again," said Bru.
"We didn't really talk about him this week.
"We spoke about [Jamie] Heaslip, CJ Stander and Sean O'Brien.
"We know the real strengths of the Irish team and we saw that against Italy [63-10 victory] and Scotland [Irish lost 22-27] and Sexton was not there."
Bru, a classy hooker in his day winning 18 caps, said conquering the Irish back row trio would be pivotal as to whether France or their opponents realistically stayed in the hunt for the title as both enter the match having won one and suffered a defeat in their two matches.
Grand Slam holders England top the table having won both their games.
"What we have to counter is the Irish back row's ability to play fast and well," said Bru.
"They have loads of speed and they are very skilled and they don't make many mistakes.
"We will try and defend effectively against them when they have the ball.
"It is a big challenge and one of the keys of the game," added the 43-year-old.
Bru, who won two European Cups and two French titles as Toulouse hooker under French head coach Guy Noves, said it was time for France to take the scalp of a big side after promising much in several games - notably against New Zealand and Australia last November - but falling short.
"We have gone close against several big fish but not caught them [since Noves took over] and we need to hook one of them if we are to progress as a squad," said Bru.
Ireland have had the upper hand in recent years most notably when they beat them in their 2015 World Cup pool match.
"I have suffered a lot of nightmares since that match at the World Cup," said Bru.
"We are ready to face them as we have worked on our defence but they will challenge us on our ability to be physically ready on different phases.
"They know all about us and we know all about them there will be no surprises,"
Bru, who remained part of the coaching staff despite the departure of previous head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, said a significant factor that had changed from previous years was that the French squad were fresher.
"The fact that now the players don't have to play Top 14 matches inbetween Six Nations games has allowed them to rest and return refreshed," said Bru.
"Now we have the opportunity for the first time to train on the Monday and Tuesday of the week of matches.
"We will see whether we're a better team but we are more confident and our game plan has developed and the players have bought into it,"