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France are favourites but Ireland bring momentum even without their key man

Andy Farrell’s side have a huge challenge ahead of them at Stade de France.

Ireland fan Nicola Pierpoint in Paris ahead of the Ireland game.
Ireland fan Nicola Pierpoint in Paris ahead of the Ireland game.

WE ALL KNOW who’s missing, we all know how big a blow it was when that hamstring twinged at Ireland training on Wednesday, and we all know that 102 Ireland caps worth of experience plus all that force of personality and rugby class would have helped.

But today’s box-office clash in Paris will be decided by those who take to the pitch at Stade de France, not those sitting in the stands offering support with their presence.

In the blue corner, a French team who have been growing as a force since Fabien Galthié took over as head coach in 2020 and made one of the best coaching appointments in a long time by luring Shaun Edwards over from Wales as his defence specialist.

Edwards has helped to add greater work-rate and organisation to the longstanding French strengths like power and panache. This France team will surely continue to get better given the ages of some of their key men. Captain and World Rugby player of the year Antoine Dupont is still just 25, out-half Romain Ntamack and fullback Melvyn Jaminet are only 22, hooker Julien Marchand is 26, lineout extraordinaire Cameron Woki is 23, and all-action number eight Grégory Alldritt is 24.

Centre and defensive leader Gaël Fickou is almost an auld lad at 27. That’s a very strong spine with plenty of room for further growth ahead of the home 2023 World Cup and les Bleus are fancied for that competition.

They’re an excellent team right now too and winning their first Six Nations title since 2010 would be welcome and is long overdue for a rugby nation of France’s size.

Galthié’s men are capable of playing some delightful attacking rugby with touches of genius from Dupont, Ntamack, Damian Penaud, and the rest, but they are explosive in contact and combative too. 

antoine-dupont France captain Antoine Dupont. Source: Dave Winter/INPHO

Big men like 145kg tighthead prop Uini Atonio and powerhouse lock Paul Willemse can excel in the close quarters, while even left wing Gabin Villière punches well above his weight at the breakdown and in the tackle. France have a few strings to their bow.

“They have a nice balance to the way they play the game,” said Ireland assistant coach John Fogarty yesterday.

“They can be very, very physical and they can also play very quickly to space with the players they have and they then have the speed to exploit you.

“There’ll be a little bit of a mix. There will be times in certain parts of the field where we have to muscle up but in general, we’re trying to put our game on them. We want to be on our feet. We don’t want to be on the ground. We don’t want to be clustered in any part of the field. We want to be on our feet playing the game in attack and defence.

“There’s going to be a mix of us having to muscle up and playing the sort of game Faz [Ireland head coach Andy Farrell] wants us to play. So a bit of both. Hopefully, we can spend more time playing the game than in an arm wrestle.”

And so to the green corner.

Farrell’s desired approach has become very clear this season thanks to a thrilling autumn series in which Ireland’s multi-layered and multi-option attack caused Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina serious problems. Wales struggled last weekend too.

France’s forwards are skillful too but Ireland’s have perhaps led the way when it comes to catch-pass ability and decision-making on the ball in Test rugby recently. The likes of Tadhg Furlong, Rónan Kelleher, Caelan Doris, and Jack Conan bring excellent footwork and power when they carry, but opposition defenders have struggled with the variety of their play. Edwards’ aggressive French defence will be a new test in that regard.

joey-carbery-talks-with-the-team-during-the-captains-run Carbery is tasked with running this Ireland team. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Making his first Six Nations start, out-half Joey Carbery will be hoping the Irish pack can give him a strong platform in phase play and off the set-piece, where Atonio and Willemse will go at Andrew Porter in the scrum, while Woki leads the assault in the lineout.

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Mack Hansen, who enjoyed such a dream debut against Wales, will be asked different defensive questions this time around but his intelligent contributions in attack may be  crucial again.

If Ireland can get momentum early in their possession, then Carbery has the skills to flourish, particularly given that there are in-form backs like Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, and Hugo Keenan willing to take on some of the playmaking responsibility too. Defensively, Ireland have been strong recently but France have unique weapons.

The man in the middle today is Australia’s Angus Gardner and while he might be hoping this one doesn’t go down to the wire, the rest of us are imagining a Guinness Six Nations battle that will live long in the memory. This year’s championship won’t be decided today but it will be a key battle in the war.

France are favourites and an Irish win would be instantly famous.

France:

  • 15. Melvyn Jaminet
  • 14. Damian Penaud
  • 13. Gaël Fickou
  • 12. Yoram Moefana
  • 11. Gabin Villière
  • 10. Romain Ntmack
  • 9. Antoine Dupont (captain)
  • 1. Cyril Baille
  • 2. Julien Marchand
  • 3. Uini Atonio
  • 4. Cameron Woki
  • 5. Paul Willemse
  • 6. François Cros
  • 7. Anthony Jelonch
  • 8. Grégory Alldritt

Replacements: 

  • 16. Peato Mauvaka
  • 17. Jean-Baptiste Gros
  • 18. Demba Bamba
  • 19. Romain Taofifenua
  • 20. Thibaud Flament
  • 21. Dylan Cretin
  • 22. Maxime Lucu
  • 23. Thomas Ramos

Ireland:

  • 15. Hugo Keenan
  • 14. Andrew Conway
  • 13. Garry Ringrose
  • 12. Bundee Aki
  • 11. Mack Hansen
  • 10. Joey Carbery
  • 9. Jamison Gibson-Park
  • 1. Andrew Porter
  • 2. Rónan Kelleher
  • 3. Tadhg Furlong
  • 4. Tadhg Beirne
  • 5. James Ryan (captain)
  • 6. Caelan Doris
  • 7. Josh van der Flier
  • 8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

  • 16. Dan Sheehan
  • 17. Cian Healy
  • 18. Finlay Bealham
  • 19. Iain Henderson
  • 20. Peter O’Mahony
  • 21. Conor Murray
  • 22. Jack Carty
  • 23. Robbie Henshaw

Referee: Angus Gardner [RA].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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