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Ireland will get a taste of life without Sexton and Murray as in-form France visit

Andy Farrell’s side will need a superb performance to keep their Six Nations hopes alive.

CAPTAIN? MISSING. VICE-captain? Missing. Vice-vice captain? Also missing.

While you’re at it, you can chalk off Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half and number eight, as well as their most prolific back three player

All the excuses are there for Andy Farrell ahead of today’s Six Nations clash with France at the Aviva Stadium [KO 3pm, Virgin Media One]. They go into this game against one of the world’s most in-form sides with a new captain and a very fresh halfback pairing.

Iain Henderson, accustomed to the gig with Ulster at least, leads Ireland for the first time as Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns – just 10 Test caps and three starts between them – get their opportunity to steer the ship from the halfback slots.

Conor Murray is hamstrung and Johnny Sexton ruled out due to the head injury he suffered last weekend in Wales, meaning Ireland go into a Six Nations game without at least one of that pair for the first time since 2011. Many Ireland fans have been calling for change in this department and now they get to see what it looks like. 

With Peter O’Mahony suspended, James Ryan and Caelan Doris also missing due to head injuries, and Jacob Stockdale currently sidelined with a knee issue, Farrell has been shorn of more than a third of the team that probably would have started this game.

Change has been forced on the Ireland head coach, who could really do with an energising win today. 

30-year-old Rhys Ruddock’s form with Leinster has earned him his first-ever Six Nations start on the occasion of his 27th cap. The blindside flanker’s muscular, abrasive approach is well suited to going up against a France team who are as physical as they are clinical.

rhys-ruddock Rhys Ruddock wins his first cap since the 2019 World Cup. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ryan’s absence means Henderson starts after an impressive outing off the bench on his return from injury in Cardiff last weekend, with the red-hot Tadhg Beirne deservedly getting another chance alongside him in the second row. 

With Sexton, O’Mahony, and Ryan absent, the other two members of Ireland’s leadership group left standing are Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong, who is set to impact from the bench again. CJ Stander, who isn’t formally part of the leadership group, took over the captaincy late on against Wales and Henderson will need all the support he can get.

Of course, all eyes will be on Ireland’s halfbacks. Gibson-Park gets his third Ireland start, bringing strong decision-making and a running threat close to the ruck. Burns, set for just his second Ireland start, possesses sharp attacking kicking skills and is good at identifying space.

Today is likely to be a major step up on what 28-year-old Gibson-Park and 26-year-old Burns – who also has the place-kicking duties but is behind John Cooney in Ulster’s pecking order for that job – have faced so far in their careers and Farrell simply cannot know how they will handle the pressure that France are sure to bring with their aggressive defence driven by Shaun Edwards. On top of that, the Irish halfbacks have to manage what look like being wet and windy weather conditions. 

Burns’ most recent involvement for Ireland was his agonising error on the last linekick against Wales, but Farrel has kept faith and he is preferred to Ross Byrne – who Burns played against in 2014 when he was representing England at U20 level.

Les Bleus have been consistently good since Fabien Galthié took over in the wake of the 2019 World Cup, with a more mature tactical approach featuring plenty of kicking, the aforementioned defensive linespeed, and an increased work-rate off the ball.

On top of that, they still have game-breaking talents like Antoine Dupont, already one of the best players in the world at the age of 24.

antoine-dupont-makes-a-break-to-score-a-try Antoine Dupont has been sensational for France. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

France are missing frontline backs Romain Ntamack and Virimi Vakatawa but their replacements, the very quick Matthieu Jalibert and Arthur Vincent, are big talents in their own right. As important as the headline-grabbing backs are the grizzly second row pair of Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse, the enforcers in this collective.

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Hard-jackaling number eight Grégory Alldritt and hooker Julien Marchand, as well as the multi-skilled captain Charles Ollivon, mean France have plenty of grit up front. 

Galthié has made two changes from last weekend’s bonus-point win over Italy, with the mobile Anthony Jelonch coming into the back row and one brilliant wing replacing another as Damian Penaud is preferred to the lethal Teddy Thomas, who will be sprung from the bench.

Ireland’s batch of replacements includes Ronan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, and Jordan Larmour, as well as possible debutant Craig Casey – all of whom could be asked to inject energy off the bench.

But one can see why France arrived in Dublin with confidence. They haven’t won in Ireland since 2011 but for the first time in a long time, they look cohesive and organised.

Galthié’s men are aiming to jump to the top of the Six Nations table with a second win in two games, while Ireland are fighting to keep their title hopes alive after that defeat in Wales.

A second consecutive loss would leave Ireland facing up to the miserable possibility of battling it out with Italy for this year’s wooden spoon. Without the likes of Sexton and Murray, Farrell needs the fresher faces to step up.

Ireland:

15. Hugo Keenan
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Billy Burns
9. Jamison Gibson Park

1. Cian Healy
2. Rob Herring
3. Andrew Porter
4. Tadhg Beirne
5. Iain Henderson (captain)
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Ronan Kelleher
17. Ed Byrne
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Will Connors
21. Craig Casey
22. Ross Byrne
23. Jordan Larmour

France:

15. Brice Dulin
14. Damien Penaud
13. Arthur Vincent
12. Gaël Fickou
11. Gabin Villière
10. Matthieu Jalibert
9. Antoine Dupont

1. Cyril Baille
2. Julien Marchand
3. Mohamed Haouas
4. Bernard Le Roux
5. Paul Willemse
6. Anthony Jelonch
7. Charles Ollivon (captain)
8. Grégory Alldritt

Replacements:

16. Pierre Bourgarit
17. Hassane Kolingar
18. Uini Atonio
19. Romain Taofifénua
20. Dylan Cretin
21. Baptiste Serin
22. Anthony Bouthier
23. Teddy Thomas

Referee: Luke Pearce [RFU].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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