France turn up the heat on Sexton

Mind games from French lead IRFU to release statement defending selection

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey look ahead to France's visit to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Video: Daniel O'Connor

 

The prime time weekend slot, and 6,000 French fans amongst a capacity crowd with Ireland seeking a ninth win in a row and seventh at the Aviva Stadium. What’s more, they are in the almost unnerving position of being favourites against their French bêtes noires. It’s nicely pitched alright. Oh yeah, and Johnny Sexton is back.

This game will be played out to the increasingly wild storm concerning Sexton’s return after a 12-week absence due to concussion issues, largely whipped up by those currently and formerly involved with France.

The French coach Philippe Saint-André admitted on Wednesday that “we should really test him early on”, with flanker Bernard Le Roux provocatively suggesting, if tongue-in-cheek, that Sexton should wear a helmet. Laurent Bénézech – a former French player turned writer – repeated his assertion to The Irish Times on Newstalk yesterday that playing Sexton was “a mistake”.

As it was the Parisian neurologist, Dr Jean-François Cherman, who had sanctioned Sexton’s 12-week lay-off and subsequently passed him fit to play, this outraged the Irish management, and the IRFU took the unprecedented step of issuing a statement defending his selection last night.

Citing the “inaccurate commentary in the media by individuals with no medical expertise”, the IRFU stated that Sexton “has been symptom-free for two months” and was cleared to return to play by “independent neurologists in France and Ireland, the FFR concussion review committee” and both the Racing Metro and Irish Medical teams. Well, if all eyes weren’t going to be on Sexton anyway, they certainly will be now.

It’s worth nothing that one of the four concussions which Sexton suffered last year was in Ireland’s victory in Paris last March when Mathieu Bastareaud came down his channel and led with his forearm.

Line-speed

In truth, as a backrower who hasn’t played a Test for 15 months and has only played 50 minutes since September, being recalled to the starting line-up is arguably a bigger ask for Seán O’Brien, especially if for any reason he is compelled to play for 80 minutes.

Even with O’Brien back in the mix, France have probably more physicality. Recalling how a Clermont side with 11 French players scored within the first two minutes of their win in Thomond Park, the key will be to keep France in their cage, for this French team have the psychological knowledge benefits of their handsome record against Ireland, and belief in their own unpredictability to swing from the hip.

Ireland have failed to beat France in three attempts at the Aviva, and O’Connell has been on the winning side only three times in 11 attempts. While highlighting the French power up front, particularly at maul time, O’Connell added: “I don’t think they’re afraid to make mistakes. They’re just so willing to have a crack at every opportunity. They don’t play the percentages as much as other teams and that’s because they have the skill set and they have the power and that’s the big thing when you play France. When I look back, I suppose, at some of the losses I’ve had against them, some of the tries they’ve scored have been spectacular. They just have that backing, or that attitude, that they’ll have a crack at every opportunity.”

Time was when Irish teams would have been doing rain dances for a repeat of yesterday’s downpour, but not this weekend, which would arguably suit France more. Perhaps helpfully, therefore, the forecast looks encouragingly dry.

As the best outhalf in the game, it will be a surprise if Sexton doesn’t give more direction to a more varied Irish game this week, with more targets in midfield and wider out.

Allowing for some individual rustiness, this Irish team is probably not only fitter but tactically more adept and better coached. There will be plenty of kicking, and kick-chase, which should be an Irish strength, and there’s no escaping the physical confrontation against Les Bleus.

Poor tackling

Joe SchmidtYoann HugetTeddy Thomas

Amid a distinct lack of romance in the Aviva air this evening, pending the red roses’ arrival in a fortnight, Sexton and Ireland to deliver again. Betting: 4/11 Ireland, 20/1 Draw, 9/4 France. Handicap odds (France +6pts) 10/11 Ireland, 20/1 Draw, 11/10 France. Forecast: Ireland to win

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