Six Nations: Wounded Ireland can deliver against France
It is sink or swim for Andy Farrell’s side - they can keep themselves afloat on Sunday
Out of adversity comes strength? Well, we’re about to find out. It’s sink or swim time. All week long in their bio-secure bubble, everyone in the Irish camp from the players to the coaches, the medics and the rest of the staff, must have felt under siege, what with the barrage of concussion coverage initiated from France.
“It stunk,” as Andy Farrell put it.
Even so, you sense that he was not entirely conveying the mood of the squad when maintaining: “The pressure that we put on ourselves is all that matters to us. The outside pressure is irrelevant, really. If we let that seep in, it does become a distraction but we work hard on making sure that doesn’t happen.”
Yet along the way they’ve lost a captain and two vice-captains, and the other half of Ireland’s greatest halfback pairing, while David Kilcoyne had fallen by the wayside too.
So, four enforced changes to the starting XV and four players promoted to the 23. They say a team is only as good as its squad. Again, we’re about to find out.
Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton have started 65 Tests together, the second highest tally of any halfback combination in history. The last time Ireland went into a Six Nations game without either of them was in 2011.
Where Murray and Sexton have a combined 195 caps, Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns have 11, and of those only five starts. This is also their first start together, ever. The forecast looked tailor made for Murray, but Jamison Gibson-Park surely knows how to play in the wet and the wind. It’s a huge task for Billy Burns, but for all his game-breaking ability, Mathieu Jalibert won’t have known many days quite like this. The total caps in Ireland’s ‘23’ has dropped from 887 to 636, but it’s still more than France (436).
Conditions are liable to be capricious as well as surreal. According to Met Eireann, “Sunday looks set to be a wet and very windy day with spells of heavy rain and gale force southerly winds”. Lovely. But it will be every bit as uncomfortable for France as for Ireland.
Sure, no James Ryan and no Peter O’Mahony on top of no Caelan Doris, and there’s perhaps less dog and athleticism and experience, as well as a diluted lineout.
By any yardstick, Ireland look weakened, at set-piece and in proven accuracy, not least in their kicking game, and in composure at times of crisis (witness the response to going a man down in Cardiff).
Yet Tadhg Beirne is playing out of his skin and Iain Henderson was immense off the bench. Picking him as captain, which smacks of Paul O’Connell’s influence, could prove inspired, and in Henderson, Rhys Ruddock, Stander and to a lesser degree, Garry Ringrose, there’s considerable experience of captaincy at provincial level.
Ruddock has never been playing better and will be straining at the leash. It’s not his qualities in contact and as a carrier that have delayed his overdue first Six Nations start, more ill-timed injuries, world-class backrowers and coaches’ picks.
For all the adversity, they’ll be in bring-it-on-mode, no one less than Farrell.
“That’s why we’re excited about it. It’s an opportunity for this group, they get to continue the fantastic form that they showed in the first game against Wales. Some of them were absolutely outstanding. Some other guys get a chance to get back on the horse and get back up to that standard. So, they’re raring to go, every single one of them that’s been selected.”
Teams regroup to compensate for lost talisman, all the more so for a one-off game. There’s a fresh new debutant in the mix too, and everything we’ve seen and heard about Craig Casey says he will not be quivering. Ditto Ross Byrne, although on balance the bench does seem to have less ballast than a week ago.
Meantime, France arrive serenely, after a gentle work-out against Italy and 50 points under their belts, and with ne’er a strained muscle, their two changes being optional.
Expecting Murray and Sexton to be in tandem again, they decided not to subject Teddy Thomas to the expected aerial bombardment and restored Damian Penaud. Clever. They’ve rotated another lineout option, Dylan Cretin, for a scrapper in Anthony Jelonch. Clever too, probably.
They’re Test rugby’s coming team, and good judges think they’ve arrived. With Antoine Dupont (one try and three assists against Italy) and Jalibert in their ranks, they can win with 40 per cent possession or less. They scored seven tries with 43 per cent possession last week.
But by the same token they also look more dependent upon individual brilliance. A callow Italy won’t have prepared them for this Irish storm, and a seemingly weakened Irish selection may lull them into a false sense of security.
If nothing else, after the anti-climax of last week, this remodelled Irish selection will have generated more interest. Ireland’s backs are to the wall and one can only imagine what a full Aviva would have been like.
Anyone watching Nick Kyrgios save two match points to win his second round match in front of a partisan crowd in Melbourne would agree he couldn’t have won without them. He was the first to say so.
With a full deck, Ireland had every chance. With a full crowd, an improbable and famous win would have been more than feasible. But thinking back to Ireland’s lineout, maul, breakdown and shape in both attack and defence last week, even without a crowd, out of adversity, there’s a big Irish performance brewing.
Against all odds, maybe even enough to squeeze a low-scoring win.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Billy Burns, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rob Herring, Andrew Porter; Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson (capt); Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander. Replacements: Ronan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Will Connors, Craig Casey, Ross Byrne, Jordan Larmour.
France: Brice Dulin; Damian Penaud, Arthur Vincent, Gael Fickou, Gabin Villiere; Matthieu Jalibert, Antoine Dupont; Cyril Baille, Julien Marchand, Mohamed Haouas; Bernard Le Roux, Paul Willemse; Anthony Jelonch, Charles Ollivon (captain), Gregory Alldritt. Replacements: Pierre Bourgarit, Hassane Kolingar, Uini Atonio, Romain Taofifenua, Dylan Cretin, Baptiste Serin, Anthony Boutier, Teddy Thomas.
Referee: Luke Pearce.