France v Ireland: French X-factor to be crucial in game of the tournament

Difficult to look past French flair and power not to mention a raucous home Parisian crowd

France v Ireland, Stade de France, Saturday February 12th (kick-off 5.45pm local time/4.45pm lrish; live on Virgin Media and ITV 1)

Most of all, his untimely hamstring strain is cruel for Johnny Sexton himself, who might now have played his last Six Nations game in Paris. It may also have reduced the odds on Ireland winning a crunch match in the 2022 Guinness Six Nations title race. But Joey Carbery, and perhaps Jack Carty, need this kind of experience. Every cloud and all that.

Having spent all week focusing on Sexton, as they do in the French rugby media, there was a striking sketch of an animated Romain Ntamack on the cover of yesterday's Midi Olympique holding a card with the words Fight Club, and a picture of Joey Carbery over his red shoulder where perhaps there was meant to have been a drawing of Sexton.

The 22-year-old Ntamack started his first Six Nations game three seasons ago and will be making his 12th start in the tournament this evening. At 26, it's about time that Carbery started one too. We're going to find out plenty about him, James Ryan's captaincy and this team as a whole in the cauldron of the Stade de France this evening.

After the rain-lashed first round, the forecast is for another relatively pleasant if crisp Parisian spring day which greeted the 4,000 Irish travelling fans yesterday. Even supplemented by some of the ex-pats, they will be significantly outnumbered among the 75,000 capacity crowd.

Although Irish teams and supporters don’t travel to Paris with the same trepidation as in the 70s, 80s and 90s - when those watching at home tended to do so from behind the couch - the weight of history is still considerable.

Ireland have beaten France in their capital city just three times since the 14-9 win at Stade Colombes in 1972 (which was a first win there in 20 years) and on each occasion the winning margin was a fraught two points.

In other words, if Ireland are to record a rare win in Paris it’s unlikely to be easy.

Given carte blanche by his buddy and French Federation president Bernard Laporte, Fabien Galthié has assembled a high quality team of assistants and delved into a productive conveyor belt of talent, as evidenced by back-to-back Under-20 World Cup wins. Quite simply, this is both the most talented and best coached French team in a decade.

Rarely, if indeed ever, has Ireland encountered such a well prepared and settled side. Nine of tonight’s starting XV lined up against Ireland when winning in the Aviva Stadium exactly a year ago, and Ntamack was ruled out of that game.

If anything, they look stronger now. Take Melvyn Jaminet, the 22-year-old fullback, whose case underlines the ridiculous depth in French rugby, for he was not even on the radar of any French underage team.

Released by Toulon before rebuilding his career in Federal 1, the third tier, he only made his professional debut for Perpignan two years ago this month. The ProD2 player of the 2020-21 season when helping Perpignan to promotion, Jaminet was pitched straight into France’s three-test tour of Australia with a virtual third team, and performed so well he has retained his place ever since. Going into last week’s game against Italy, he had a 92 per cent goalkicking ratio at Test level, and has a range of up to 60 metres.

If the world player of the year, Antoine Dupont, or Ntamack doesn't hurt you, then Damian Penaud (11 tries in 16 games for club and country this season) probably will do, and then last week there was Gabin Villière scoring a hat-trick. Three years ago he was playing Federal 1 with Rouen.

But this French side can beat opponents in a variety of ways. Accommodating the athletic 6' 5", 103 kg Cameron Woki in the secondrow worked a treat against the All Blacks and has strengthened their lineout, which will give Paul O'Connell's well-oiled set-piece a serious test.

Their maul is a huge strength and no home crowd and team alike derive more energy from supremacy in the scrum than the French. The battle between Cyril Baille against Tadhg Furlong is as good as it gets.

Seemingly well set to win their first title since 2010 in each of the last two seasons before letting them slip, France are desperate to win at least one Six Nations prior to hosting the World Cup. This would not only end their longest drought without a championship since winning their first title in 1959 but would legitimize their credentials as contenders to win a first World Cup.

Viewed in that light, this is a huge game for les bleus. Ireland’s nine-game winning run and rise to third in the world commands respect. Accordingly they apparently overloaded their work prior to last Sunday’s win over Italy specifically with Ireland in mind.

Even allowing for the heavy rain last Sunday, if any team can go up a few gears when the occasion demands and the mood takes them in a week’s turnaround, it is France. To whit, last November they put in a laboured performance to beat Georgia and seven days later beat the All Blacks 40-25 in an absolute epic.

Ireland gave a much more sustained performance against Wales, which raises hopes that the younger tyros Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris can contribute to the Irish pack out-working the French, who did have some quiet performers up front last week.

Jaco Peyper didn’t turn out to be too bad last week for Ireland, the 29-7 win over Wales ending a three-match losing sequence under his watch. But was he possibly too kind in not penalizing Ireland until the 54th minute?

Granted, but for Josh Adams’ shoulder charge on Johnny Sexton five minutes beforehand, Ireland would have been penalised sooner. In any event, it’s unlikely Ireland are going to avoid any penalties in the first half on Saturday evening.

What's more, one ventures that the Welsh report into Peyper's officiating would have highlighted one or two unpunished Irish indiscretions, as will Fabien Galthié in his advance meeting with tonight's match referee Angus Gardner.

Joe Schmidt and Ireland have had had issues with Gardner in the past, not least in his officiating of the Japan-Ireland World Cup pool meeting, and it's perhaps also unhelpful that Gardner ran the line in Dublin last week.

Although this Irish team could be special and they look well equipped to go toe-to-toe with France, that could be significant. So too the game-breaking abilities of France’s X-factor individuals. Either way, it could well be the game of the tournament.

France: Melvyn Jaminet; Damian Penaud, Gael Fickou, Yoram Moefana, Gabin Villière; Romain Ntamack, Antoine Dupont (captain); Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Uini Atonio; Cameron Woki, Paul Willemse; Francois Cros, Anthony Jelonch, Gregory Alldritt.

Replacements: Peato Mauvaka, Jean-Baptiste Gros, Demba Bamba, Romain Taofifuena, Thibaud Flament, Dylan Cretin, Maxime Lucu, Thomas Ramos.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians), Mack Hansen (Connacht); Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf); Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD, capt); Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary's College), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere).

Replacements: Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne), Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy), Peter O'Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Jack Carty (Connacht/Buccaneers), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers).

Forecast: France to win

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times

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