Thoughts of dreaded wooden spoon should concentrate French minds
Ireland v France: Fourth hosting sixth was not quite how this had been envisaged. Instead, for this pair – akin to two dogs scrapping over a bone – the pickings will be slim, even if fought for just as desperately. And although each has one more winnable scrap to come, the loser will be one step closer to a possible, and utterly unforeseen, wooden spoon.
Whatever about an injury-afflicted Ireland losing two of their first three, how on earth France find themselves in this position after three defeats is an even bigger riddle.
Given that the team which started out the tournament was effectively the same which cut a swathe through the autumn, the rigours of the Top 14 and its brand of rugby must be partially responsible, as were Philippe Saint-André’s complaints in that it gave Les Bleus that mental excuse in advance of their opening defeat to Italy.
Playing off-form players and others out of position didn’t help either, but having wielded the guillotine following the abysmal home defeat to Wales, France produced their best hour against England at Twickenham and there have been no excuses this week, with Morgan Parra the hub.
A la Ireland, once more they struggled to see out 80 minutes, and although Thierry Dusautoir yesterday maintained that their record against Ireland (one loss in 13 games) was less relevant than the recent run of three defeats, it’s hard not to think that this gives them the belief to rediscover winning ways.
First wooden spoon
As was the case two weeks ago, they may be better off playing away from their jeering Parisian audience just now. Besides which, the prospect of a first wooden spoon since 1999 and a host of other indignities (their longest winless run in the tournament since 1927) ought to concentrate French minds. Both camps played down the relevance of the forecast of another wet evening in Dublin, but it’s also hard not to think it will benefit France more.
Their lineout and maul worked better in Twickenham, ditto their scrum with Thomas Domingo back in harness, they won the collisions and effectively flooded the breakdown.
This Ireland are not best equipped for an arm wrestle, as the sodden 12-6 defeat to England demonstrated, even if Declan Kidney reminded us that Ireland had engineered plenty of attacking platforms that day. But as the increased error count also highlighted, there are liable to be more scrums this evening.
France retain an innate ability to turn a quick throw, counter or turnover into a try in almost the blink of an eye. This threat is enhanced by having an all-Toulouse outside four, including Ireland’s bête noire Vincent Clerc and Toulouse product Frédéric Michalak in their ranks, as well as a superbly balanced all-Toulouse backrow.
Though they’ve not been especially creative in this tournament, Michalak and Florian Fritz can also make them more unpredictable. Yet, for all their traditional flamboyance, Jamie Heaslip noted: “They’re quite a structured team and a very well-drilled team, especially their set-pieces and stuff, so flair doesn’t really mix too well with mauling lads down the field or the fact they take such pride in their scrum. I think they say ‘scrum is key’ but it’s ‘scrum is king’.”
Indeed, when Thomas Domingo began to outmuscle and outmanoeuvre Dan Cole, confidence flooded through French ranks, and with the damp conditions liable to mean more set-pieces, so the return of Mike McCarthy (albeit with fitness reservations) to the tighthead side of the scrum as well as Cian Healy (whom Dusautoir mentioned twice yesterday) could give Ireland a lifeline.
As significant as those first scrums in drawing a line in the sand, will be Paddy Jackson’s first place-kick as the crowd holds its collective breath. As well as scrummaging big, and taking their points, it would put further doubt in brittle French minds if Ireland can get at Michalak and force him back inside, or try to do too much, given he is Saint-André’s signature selection.
To counter French defensive line speed and their flooding of the breakdown, Ireland need to be accurate in quickly supporting their runners or, when necessary, kick well to put the French backfielders under pressure.
They also need more movement and tempo in their line-out, and more accurate throwing from Rory Best.
You sense O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Heaslip, Seán O’Brien and Best are due big games and Ireland a big performance, and given Parra’s customary excellence, an improved Conor Murray performance would be welcome. Nor would a win be a complete surprise.
Although Ireland have been unlucky in the last two clashes, outscoring France five tries to two, there’s the recent history of this fixture and the nagging suspicion conditions may be better suited to France, who also have a more potent and experienced bench to call upon.
How they line out
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Fergus McFadden (Leinster); Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster), Luke Marshall (Ulster), Keith Earls (Munster); Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster), Mike Ross (Leinster);
Mike McCarthy (Connacht), Donnacha Ryan (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Seán O’Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster, capt).
Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), David Kilcoyne (Munster), Stephen Archer (Munster), Donncha O’Callaghan (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)
FRANCE: Yoann Huget (Toulouse); Vincent Clerc (Toulouse), Florian Fritz (Toulouse), Wesley Fofana (Clermont), Maxime Medard (Toulouse); Frederic Michalak (Toulon), Morgan Parra (Clermont), Thomas Domingo (Clermont), Benjamin Kayser (Clermont),
Nicolas Mas (Perpignan); Christophe Samson (Castres), Yoann Maestri (Toulouse); Yannick Nyanga (Toulouse), Thierry Dusautour (Toulouse, c), Louis Picamoles (Toulouse).
Replacements: G Guirado (Perpignan), V Debaty (Clermont Auvergne), L Ducalon (Racing Metro), S Vahaamahina (Perpignan), A Claassen (Castres), M Machenaud (Racing Metro), F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Bastareaud (Toulon).
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)