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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
# big issues
The talking points ahead of today’s crunch Ireland -France test
Ireland’s season is on the line today – and coach Andy Farrell knows it.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 14th 2021, 12:11 PM

Can Billy Burns get over last week’s nightmare?

It is 10 years since an Irish side last appeared in a Six Nations game without either Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray in their starting line-up which is so long ago that it preceded the start of Billy Burns and Jamison Gibson-Park’s professional careers.

They’ve come a long way since, geographically at least: Gibson-Park starting life as a pro at Taranaki, Burns as a Cherry-and-White at Gloucester. Ten years and just ten caps later, they’re here, in Dublin, in the white heat of a Six Nations Test with questions hanging over each of them.

Burns, especially, has a point to prove. Quite apart from his misplaced kick with the final play of last week’s game in Cardiff, there was also a badly timed pass just prior to then, after Garry Ringrose had given Ireland decent field position deep in the Welsh half.

There and then the memory drifted back to Paris three years ago, to another last-ditch effort and another out-half directing affairs. On that unforgettable occasion, Sexton even had time to self-medicate in the middle of Ireland’s 41-phase move, treating himself for cramp, before he picked himself off the floor to drop the winning goal.

Now, metaphorically speaking, it is Burns who has to pick himself up after last week’s mishaps. Can he? Can Gibson-Park deal with the considerable threat of Antoine Dupont?

We can’t answer those questions now because there simply isn’t enough evidence yet to suggest they’re up to it.

What’s worth considering, though, is the fact that Sexton now is nowhere near as imposing a figure as he was in 2018, when Ireland defeated the French en route to the Grand Slam. Last time out against France, back in October, he missed a tackle in midfield which led to Dupont’s opening try. Also, it was Sexton who inexplicably decided to kick for the corner rather than take a scoreable penalty in that game. In other words, he isn’t as good as he once was.

Is Burns better? No. Is he good enough? That’s an entirely different question. Only he can answer it. If he isn’t, Ireland will lose. 

jamison-gibson-park Dan Sheridan / INPHO Jamison Gibson-Park at the Captain's Run. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Who will get a gold star for discipline?

Prior to that 35-27 defeat on Halloween, Ireland had only lost one of their previous nine games to France, and a key factor in those triumphs was their discipline. Under Joe Schmidt, low penalty counts became part of the side’s DNA reflected in the fact that from 2015 through to 2019, they only lost the penalty count once to France. And on that occasion, in 2016, they also lost the game.

The numbers have edged upwards since; Peter O’Mahony’s red card last week a reflection of that.

Not that the French are squeaky clean. Their sole defeat in last year’s championship came on the back of a red card at Murrayfield while the yellow that Anthony Bouthier received in October gifted Ireland the momentum that resulted in Cian Healy’s try. No team conceded more penalties in last year’s championship. It was a reason why Les Bleus did not win it.

In such a physical game, it’s often a tightrope that players walk, needing to be aggressive yet in control. O’Mahony’s balancing act came unstuck last weekend and look what happened. The lesson from that, not to mention what happened to Scotland yesterday, needs to be absorbed.

peter-omahony-leaves-the-field-after-being-red-carded Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Peter O'Mahony leaves the field last week. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Do France deserve the hype?

It’s beginning to look that way. While they didn’t win the championship, or indeed the Autumn Nations Cup in 2020, they did win respect. In fact, it’s worth remembering that the French would have won the Six Nations only for the fact they kicked the ball dead in the 80th minute of last February’s win over England, when there were 10 seconds left on the clock.

A scrum followed; then a penalty which Owen Farrell kicked and a 24-14 win became 24-17, that losing bonus point enough to give England the trophy, on points difference, from France by the time the final whistle blew on the season in October.

Dusautoir adds: “This is our best chance for a long time to win the Six Nations,” said Thierry Dusautoir. Despite losing Romain Ntamack, Mathieu Jalibert is a superb alternative. Their backrow, containing their captain, Charles Ollivon and the supremely gifted, Gregory Alldritt, is top class.

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That’s before we mention Antoine Dupont. Plus they are well coached. Shaun Edwards has made his mark, likewise Raphael Ibanez and Fabien Galthié. The clubs, for once, are not fighting with the union. For so much of the last decade they were a byword for inconsistency and infighting. Now substance and style rhyme.

gregory-alldritt-is-presented-with-the-guinness-six-nations-player-of-the-match-award-by-his-captain-charles-ollivon James Crombie / INPHO Gregory Alldritt gets his man of the match award. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The set piece

We are stating the absolute obvious here but whoever controls the set-piece, often can control the game. Look at yesterday’s Wales-Scotland game; the first three Welsh tries coming off the back of the Welsh line-out; Scotland’s third try stemming from their dominant scrum.

Ireland’s scrum was under pressure during the autumn, especially against England while their lineout was simply nowhere near as effective as it needed to be in the Autumn Nations Cup. The signs last week were more encouraging, though – Paul O’Connell’s imprint visible in the way Ireland thieved some Welsh ball. And that, remember, was without O’Mahony for all bar the opening 14 minutes.

One factor that may become significant this afternoon is the loss of Dave Kilcoyne, a hugely talented scrummager, who is out of today’s game, depriving Ireland of a top-class finisher to come on for the end-game.

Who will boss the breakdown?

Ali Price summed things up fairly succinctly last autumn after yet another defeat for the Scots in Dublin. “The problem with Ireland,” he said, “is that you know what is coming, but that does not mean you can stop it.”

That day Ireland controlled the game via this department, as the Scots conceded 15 penalties and got turned over 12 times. “It was an area where we’d struggled against Ireland last February, especially in attack. Test matches are won and lost on swings in small time periods of games. That can win you or lose you the match. Coming out for the second half (in the Autumn Nations Cup game), we had been the better team for the first period, but poor discipline allowed Ireland to get good field position for the first five or 10 minutes of that second half and they came away with points, which you can’t afford to happen. Before you know it, you’re 14 points down and that’s hard to chase.”

Doing it against Scotland is one thing; bossing France another. But if Ireland are to win today, they must.

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