By Tadhg Peavoy
Away trips to France are never easy for any team. For Ireland, since the turn of the century, they have only claimed two wins out of ten battles against Les Bleus on French soil.
In very recent times, the general record against France, it must be said, has been much better. Ireland are unbeaten against what is traditionally European rugby’s flair side in five, with three wins and two draws on the books; the last time Ireland went six undefeated in this clash started with a winning streak way back in 1924. Ireland have never gone unbeaten for seven against the French.
The stats in the history of this encounter always serve to highlight how valubale a win is against a side that terrified Ireland between 1986 and 1999 when the Celtic nation were beaten every year consecutively.
The turnaround in fortunes of the national side against Les Bleus shows the leaps and bounds by which Ireland have improved in the last 16 years.
From a struggling outfit to one that has won three of the last seven Six Nations titles, supported by improved coaching structures, an upsurge in talent being produced across all the provinces and a professional structure that has nurtured all of this, has brought Ireland to the top table of the European game.
Can the French reverse their decline?
France, by contrast, have been in decline for the last four years. The Philippe Saint-Andre years were marked by indecision, poor results, no consistent selection policies, and against Ireland, a total absence of victories. The results in the Six Nations underpin this with finishes of fourth, sixth, fourth and fourth. Unthinkable really for a side that has won five Six Nations titles, more than any other nation, and dominated Europe in the 1980s and 90s, winning nine Five Nations titles.
This abysmal Saint-Andre period appropriately came to an end with disgrace as his side were thumped 62-13 by New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-finals; that defeat serving as an apt metaphor for just how far this great rugby nation has fallen.
The man tasked with dragging Les Bleus up by their bootstraps and reviving French rugby is legendary Toulouse coach Guy Noves. Winner of four European Cups and ten Top 14s as a coach, he has the pedigree to get the job done. However, a three-year absence of titles with his club before his appointment as France boss has the sceptics raising questions over whether Noves’ best as a coach is behind him, and proclaiming the belief that he has peaked already.
Add to that the problems in French club rugby of an overdominance on foreign players for the top teams and most of the Top 14 sides playing one-dimensional bish, bash, bosh rugby, and the problems within French rugby take on a far deeper malaise.
Last week’s 23-21 victory over Italy will have done little to ease the worries of French supporters as their side squeezed past their continental opponents with a flat, uninspired and confused performance. However, this was game one of the Noves era and far too early to sound the alarm bells.
Two talented back divisions
Within the France team for Saturday’s encounter is plenty of talent. Maxime Medard, Teddy Thomas, Maxime Mermoz, Jonathan Danty, Virimi Vakatawa, Jules Plisson and Sebastien Bezy form an impressive backline that with quality possession from the pack can do damage to Ireland. Most especially Medard at fullback, Sevens player Vakatawa on the wing, and destructive Danty in the centre of the park.
Ireland’s back division is very settled. The halfback pairing of Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton performed superbly – as usual – against Wales and gave an array of possession to their back five from which they could feed off. The centres Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne again looked like a pairing of solidity that can more than hold their own in defence, but still looked stymied in offence by a lack of pre-set plays and a freedom to roam with ball-in-hand. Similarly the back three against Wales were more intent on doing the simple things right than throwing caution to the wind.
If Ireland are to come away with victory in Paris, they will need to exercise more adventure in this department, and show more in terms of willingness to attack with risk. There is a consesus beginning to form- on the basis of the Wales clash – that Ireland are in the process of developing a larger repertoire in attack and it that is the case, we may see a more cavalier attitude from the 9-15 division on Saturday.
Little to separate the packs
The France pack likewise is filled with talent and a front row of Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado and Uini Atoni will cause Ireland plenty of headaches on Saturday. Pillars Jack McGrath and Nathan White will be given a huge test at scrum time and it is in this department that France will attempt to gain a stranglehold. They will see it as a platform to win penalties or field position to launch attacks into the Ireland 22.
Alexandre Flanquart and Yoann Maestri are what would appear to be a fairly even match with Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy in the second row and the French should just edge that battle.
But the ever crucial back row contest will be defining. And it is here that Ireland should have a crucial edge.
Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara and Damien Chouly, on paper, do not have the dynamism of SJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. The former duo packing down together potentially offers Ireland the most dangerous flank pairing it has had in many seasons, with Heaslip doing the dirty work alongside them, almost in the manner of a traditional openside flanker. Ireland should shade the breakdown area thanks to this trio, and also do more damage in the loose. If that proves to be the case, it could be a historic night for Schmidt’s team in Paris.
Verdict: Ireland to win by six.
France: Maxime Medard, Teddy Thomas, Maxime Mermoz; Jonathan Danty, Virimi Vakatawa; Jules Plisson, Sebastien Bezy; Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado (capt), Uini Atonio, Alexandre Flanquart, Yoann Maestri, Wenceslas Lauret, Yacouba Camara, Damien Chouly.
Replacements: Camille Chat, Rabah Slimani, Eddy Ben Arous, Paul Jedresiak, Loann Goujon, Maxime Machenaud, Jean-Marc Doussain, Hugo Bonneval.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best (capt), Nathan White, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Richardt Strauss, James Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Donnacha Ryan, Tommy O’Donnell, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden.