Dan Sheridan/INPHO Ireland take on France in Toulouse today.
up against it

Ireland look to mix skills with smarts as they brace for major test in France

Greg McWilliams’ side take on an impressive French team in Toulouse today.

THE CITY OF Toulouse woke up today to an orange weather warning for snow and ice, an unusual prospect across the early days of April, and bad news for the tourists arriving at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport hoping for some springtime sunshine.

With many parts of France seeing heavy snowfall on Friday, this out-of-season chill was not in the script. Then again, scripts are ripped up all the time, and that’s precisely what Ireland are looking to do later today when they take on France in the second round of the TikTok Women’s Six Nations [KO 2.15pm, RTÉ 2].

The not-so-subtle suggestion during Ireland’s media briefings during the week was that Greg McWilliams’ team could be on their way to a hiding in the Stade Ernest-Wallon, and logic would back that up. France are a fine-tuned machine who boast an almost entirely professional playing squad. They, along with England, simply operate on another level in the Women’s Six Nations.

Les Blues won 56-15 when France and Ireland met in Donnybrook last year. It was 47-17 at the same venue in 2019, 24-0 when they met in Toulouse a year previously.

The Ireland camp have been honest in addressing the task at hand. Irish teams often find it tough in France – 13 visits, 13 defeats – and for a young, relatively inexperienced group of players, many of whom were back in their day jobs earlier this week, this looks a daunting challenge.

The hosts will attract a strong home crowd in Toulouse, the likes of which many of this Ireland squad have yet to experience. Almost 14,000 turned up to watch them beat Italy in Grenoble last Sunday, and they expect that figure to rise today.

McWilliams has worked with his squad on managing the occasion and the atmosphere that awaits in Toulouse. The Ireland players have run through drills with crowd noise blaring from speakers in training, learning to communicate amid the din generated by an imagined home French support. 

That won’t be where this game is won and lost, of course. As we saw against a Wales side who displayed all the benefits of the WRU’s recent move to hand out 12 professional contracts, Ireland will naturally struggle to match the power and conditioning of full-time athletes. 

greg-mcwilliams-and-niamh-briggs Evan Treacy / INPHO Greg McWilliams and assistant coach Niamh Briggs. Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

There was an inevitability about how Wales managed to turn a nine-point deficit into an eight-point win at the RDS last weekend. As Wales focused in on their power game, and in particular their maul, Ireland simply had no answer.

Ireland will have placed a major focus on their maul defence this week, knowing it’s an area France will look to go after. 

That may be a long-term project for McWilliams and his coaching staff, but other areas that proved damaging last weekend should be quicker fixes.

Ireland’s discipline cost them dearly against Wales, inviting the visitors back into the game time and again through the concession of 14 penalties – although they can rightly feel aggrieved with some of those decisions – and they can also look to sharpen up on their own set-piece work.

It is also worth noting again that Ireland came into this tournament with just three training camps under their belt, so patience will be required with this rebuilding project.

Brushing up on those basics will be key for Ireland today, and they will also look to tailor their approach slightly, tightening things up without completely losing the attacking flair on show in flashes last week. The skill and handling on display across both the backs and forwards was perhaps the biggest positive of the Wales game, given how Ireland struggled in that area last season.

There was plenty of promise in the new half-back paring of Nicole Cronin – the former scrum-half winning her first cap at 10 – and Aoibheann Reilly, who looked calm and comfortable on the occasion of her Test debut. The move to deploy Cronin at 10 also allowed the superb Stacey Flood shine as a second playmaker at centre.

Add in the brilliant running threat of a player like Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe and the improving Eve Higgins – who recovered well from some frustrating defensive lapses – and there is plenty of exciting playmaking talent in this group, a product of the IRFU’s heavy focus on Sevens Rugby. That’s before mentioning the attacking threat provided by second row Sam Monaghan and influential prop Linda Djougang.

sam-monaghan Dan Sheridan / INPHO Sam Monaghan during training this week. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Of course, Ireland need to get the ball in hand if they are to put those weapons to use, which could prove difficult against an impressive French side.

France eventually made light work of Italy last weekend after a somewhat sticky start, but there was a sense that the home team were only warming up for bigger tests that lie ahead, although the Italians did highlight that you can play through this France defence – the visitors opening a few doors through their weekend-best 17 offloads.

While Ireland are unchanged from the Wales defeat – McWilliams surprisingly opting to keep the squad’s ‘most exciting player’ in Beibhinn Parsons on the bench again – France have changed seven from last week, a reminder of their superior strength and depth as they look to build a Grand Slam charge. 

The brilliant Émilie Boulard starts at full-back after impressing off the bench against Italy, while scrum-half Laure Sansus will look to inject plenty of pace into France’s play as she also comes into the starting XV. For the second week running, 2018 World Player of the Year Jessy Trémoulière starts on the bench.

Ireland have their own super sub in Parsons. The gifted winger has the talent and skill to skate through any defence, but Ireland will need a huge performance if they are going to still be in the contest by the time she gets the call from McWilliams.

Still, stranger things have happened. 

FRANCE: Émilie Boulard; Cyrielle Banet, Maëlle Filopon, Gabrielle Vernier, Mélissande Llorens; Caroline Drouin, Laure Sansus; Coco Lindelauf, Laure Touyé, Clara Joyeux; Madoussou Fall, Audrey Forlani; Axelle Berthomieu, Gaëlle Hermet (captain), Romane Ménager.

Replacements: Célia Domain, Annaëlle Deshayes, Assia Khalfaoui, Céline Ferer, Julie Annery, Alexandra Chambon, Jessy Trémoulière, Chloé Jacquet.

IRELAND: Eimear Considine; Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe, Eve Higgins, Stacey Flood, Lucy Mulhall; Nicole Cronin, Aoibheann Reilly; Linda Djougang, Neve Jones, Katie O’Dwyer; Nichola Fryday (captain), Sam Monaghan; Dorothy Wall, Edel McMahon, Brittany Hogan.

Replacements: Emma Hooban, Chloe Pearse, Christy Haney, Anna McGann, Hannah O’Connor, Kathryn Dane, Enya Breen, Beibhinn Parsons.  

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