Gerry Thornley: Ireland v France is box-office clash of Six Nations

Les Bleus and Dupont will come on for Italy win but Paris visitors pose a serious danger

Back in the day many in England and France reckoned that their annual head-to-head in the Six Nations should be the final shoot-out on the last Saturday night.

It no doubt pleased French and UK TV executives that le crunch will again provide the finale on March 19th this year. Yet by rights this looks a more apt description for next Saturday's clash between France and Ireland, and the pity is it has come so soon.

These are early days, for sure, but France went into the tournament as favourites, with Ireland second in the betting for the title, and those odds have hardened after each accrued bonus point home wins, with Ireland now rising to third in the world rankings above England and France in fifth.

Both teams will be sharper for those openers too. France looked rusty in biblical rain at the Stade de France against Italy on Sunday. But, typical of them, they came to life in telling fashion when they needed to, not least to outflank the blitz Italian defence with those lovely tip-on passes by Romain Ntamack and Damian Penaud for Gabin Villière to slide in for the first of his three tries. They have those strike plays in their locker.


Like no one else they can also conjure tries out of relatively nothing or, in the case of Penaud's finish after his exchange of passes with Antoine Dupont, from a quick throw by Melvyn Jaminet – a reminder of the need to stay alert if the ball is not put into the crowd.

This was Dupont’s most influential contribution on a relatively off-colour day for the great man. But the French scrumhalf, talisman and captain had only played once for Toulouse since his star-of-the-match display away to Cardiff on December 11th, having suffered a leg infection and Covid in the interim.

Like his team-mates, Dupont will be better for that game. Besides, not too much can ever be read into French performances against Italy. Les Bleus expect to win this fixture, and overconfidence perhaps partly contributed to their only Six Nations defeats by the Azzurri, in Rome in 2011 and 2013.

According to French sources, even in the build-up to last Sunday, their primary focus was on the Irish game next Saturday. They may well have slightly over-trained before Italy. Those nine Irish wins in a row demand respect, as does the third-place ranking.

Under Fabien Galthié and his assistants, and the new-found relationship with the clubs, every Top 14 player now wants to play for Les Bleus, which wasn’t always the case over the last decade. Likewise, the French rugby public have rediscovered their love for the team.

Title drought

However, France haven’t won a Championship title since 2010, their longest wait since their first outright triumph in 1959. After the last two near-misses under Galthié, this team desperately needs to end that drought. The weight of expectation on them is huge.

They freely acknowledge that they need a Six Nations title before hosting the World Cup next year, to legitimise their chances of lifting the William Webb Ellis Cup on home soil. As an aside, this will also be the last meeting between France and Ireland in Paris until a potential World Cup quarter-final.

Farrell has to consider restoring Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw.

Interestingly too, both Galthié and Andy Farrell appear to have similar selection posers, namely in the secondrow and at inside centre. Galthié opted to use Cameron Woki's lineout skills and athleticism in the secondrow against Italy. But Woki could return to the backrow at the expense of Dylan Cretin, thus beefing up the secondrow by renewing Bernard le Roux's partnership alongside Paul Willemse, the other South African-born lock who qualified through residency.

Jonathan Danty’s ankle injury against Italy is likely to rule him out of next Saturday’s match. The 21-year-old Bordeaux midfielder Yoram Moefana, born in New Caledonia, came on and made the initial break for that Penaud try, and is a likelier replacement than Virimi Vakatawa. The fit-again Matthieu Jalibert might also return to the matchday squad.

Similarly, Farrell has to consider restoring Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw. The former brings the required horsepower, although he hasn't played in eight weeks and Tadhg Beirne maintained his superb form against Wales. Ditto Bundee Aki as regards Henshaw.

Home advantage

With the return of full stadia, home advantage will also be a big factor on Saturday night, as it was on opening weekend. It being England, the Calcutta Cup and the later kick-off, the Murrayfield crowd seemed particularly engaged. Although spending less than a minute in the English 22, Scotland deserved their win, if only for their defence, conjuring one superb try and forcing a penalty try through the pinpoint accuracy of Finn Russell’s consecutive crosskicks to his two wingers.

Quite why Luke Cowan-Dickie didn’t try to catch the ball rather than palm it into touch only he knows, but how did England’s defensive system end up with a reserve frontrow as their last three defenders when Russell kicked back to the right?

It didn’t help that Joe Marchant, a centre on the wing, had been dragged across initially, or that Max Malins, a full-back on the right wing, had been beaten by Duhan van der Merwe. Eddie Jones is being beaten over the head for removing the new darling of English rugby Marcus Smith – although more significant factors were England’s selection and tactics, which mostly revolved around aimless kicking and one-off runners.

And Maro Itoje’s most notable contributions were to concede two needless penalties in that last-quarter implosion. Scotland celebrated wildly, but they’d have been kicking themselves if they hadn’t beaten such a poor English team who will, presumably, improve.

By stark contrast, not for the first time in the last year, much of Ireland’s performance, be it the solid foundations of set-piece and a defence that all the players clearly revel in contributing towards, or the intricate attacking play, suggested Farrell, his assistants and the players might be creating something special.

We’ll have a better idea by next Saturday night in Paris.