The most pivotal game of the weekend in terms of championship relevance takes place in Dublin, where defending champions Ireland host arch-nemesis France. The visitors are historically the dominant side, but in recent years the two have been almost perfectly matched, with no difference greater than one score since 2010. Where they play doesn’t seem to matter. As far as blood and guts go, this match is the one to watch.
Ireland earned a well-drilled victory over an outclassed Italian side last week, and have predictably retained the bulk of the side, with changes only coming in the form of key players returning from injury. Sean O’Brien gets another chance to make the opening kickoff, with his hamstring problem apparently not an issue, and Jamie Heaslip’s various bumps and bruises have healed sufficiently for him to return at the back of the scrum. Jordi Murphy is bumped to the bench, with Tommy O’Donnell unlucky to be the odd man out after a strong showing in Rome.
The big name of course is Jonny Sexton, who jumps straight into the starting lineup in place of Ian Keatley after spending the past three months recovering from concussion. His class is undoubted, but whether he can seamlessly switch back into game mode at the highest level remains to be seen. If he can find his kicking form early, particularly from the boot in open play, it could go along way to securing the win.
Cian Healy is the other high profile returnee, albeit to the bench in place of Jerry Cronin. The unfortunate thing for him is that he’ll likely be up against the monstrous Uini Atonio when he makes his inevitable entrance, not exactly the re-introduction to test rugby he had in mind. Martin Moore will be similarly nonplussed to see his old pal Vincent Debaty recalled just in time to dance in Dublin. Moore won’t be giving up nearly as many kilos as Healy, but the psychological edge tips well towards the big Franco-Belgian of Clermont Auvergne.
Philippe Saint-André was pleased enough with the win in Paris and rolled out a nearly identical side, with the lone change coming at loosehead with Eddy Ben Arous earning his first test start in place of Alexandre Menini, who damaged a foot against Scotland. The Racing Metro star has considerably more ability in the loose than Menini, the question is whether he can stand up to Mike Ross in the scrum. If he passes the test, he could be a long-term answer in the no1 jersey with Thomas Domingo out of form and out of favour.
Even considering that uncertainty, France should have the edge in the scrum, but Ireland look more likely in the lineout. One point of different in the back row is the absence of a powerful ball runner for France. Louis Picamoles is out and Damien Chouly is not the type to bust through tackles. Loann Goujon fills that role more capably but will have to wait his turn on the bench. Instead it will be up to Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud to try and punch holes in the midfield, with Guilhem Guirado and Ben Arous tasked with the hard yards up front. Bastareaud had his way in last year’s fixture, but Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne are significantly larger in physical stature than their predecessors Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll.
The result could come down to kicking, both territorially and for goal. On a normal day Sexton would be favoured to have the edge, but Camille Lopez looked sharp against the Scots and has a distinct advantage in battle readiness. Both Rory Kockott and Conor Murray are accomplished strikers of the ball themselves, and their contributions could be just as important if only to take pressure off their respective no10s. At the back, Rob Kearney has an excellent reputation, but Scott Spedding is equally capable of heaving the ball to the other end of the pitch.
It’s a fascinating contest, with no clear winner and plenty of questions to be answered in the opening forays. Ireland will take a more tactical approach, while Les Bleus look to contest at the collisions. Will there be a feeling out process, or will either chance their arm at early glory? Joe Schmidt chose pragmatism in Rome, surely he will opt for the same here, if only to probe for potential weak spots. This should be the most intense match of the weekend, and well worth a pint and some popcorn whether watched from the couch or the cheap seats. Look for Ireland to nudge ahead in the second half and hold on for dear life as they scrape through to victory, but only just. Take the home side by 3.
IRELAND vs FRANCE
Saturday, February 14, 17:00 GMT, Dublin
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
Assistants: Nigel Owens (WRU) & Leighton Hodges (WRU)
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)