If Ireland win this title, they’ll have earned it
It’s always been a crying shame O’Driscoll et al had so many second-place finishes
Away wins are hard in this tournament, nowhere more so than in Paris, where all visiting teams struggle for wins. France have duly won both their games in the Stade de France. Fired up for an entree with les rosbifs after two weeks in camp together, they benefitted from a lucky couple of bounces for two early tries by Yoann Huget, and then having been largely outplayed, conjured victory from the jaws of defeat with probably the try of the tournament so far.
Then there’s their utter unpredictability. When Ireland went to Paris in 1982 after clinching the Triple Crown and championship in their opening three matches, they had a month-long break going into their final game, whereupon a pointless France rang the changes and won 22-9.
They are not coming from such a low ebb this season, and a la reacning the World Cup final when seemingly even more dysfunctional, somehow contrive to sit third in the table with three wins out of four. Their surprisingly impassioned celebrations at the full-time whistle in Murrayfield point to a spirit in the group, as did their ability to extract a second late win from behind.
Their line-out was denuded in Murrayfield by the loss of both hookers, not to mention Yannick Nyanga joining Thierry Dusautoir on the sidelines. Yet the return of Dimitri Szarzewski after an ankle injury should rectify their misfiring line-out, which lost eight balls through an awful demonstration of dartsmanship in Murrayfield, while the return of Louis Picamoles will give them more go-forward.
Like Joe Schmidt, Philippe Saint-André will reveal his hand on Thursday morning, and could make further changes to the backrow, and perhaps opt for Remi Tales to start at outhalf after another unconvincing performance by Jules Plisson.
Plisson made a fairytale arrival into the Test arena when that grubber with his first touch was deflected into the onrushing Huget, but as anyone who watched him closely in the Amlin Challenge Cup final last May will testify, he takes the ball deep and his first instinct is often to turn sideways toward the touchline, thereby offering little threat to the opposition or the gain line, while doing few favours for those outside him.
Accordingly, much of their attacking game has been deep and shapeless, even off set-piece ball, and in Plisson’s defence this has not changed unduly with the introduction of Tales, suggesting their problems run much deeper than the occupancy of the outhalf position.
Yet, even without Nyanga and the wonderful Wesley Fofana, les bleus have real gamebreakers, notably in the back three, where they can perm any three from Huget (the tournament’s leading try scorer, though an unreliable defender), Bruce Dulin and Maxime Medard, or Hugo Bonneval. If Ireland win this title, they’ll have earned it.