France v Ireland: Six Nations preview
By Keith Moore
Last Updated: 13/02/16 6:58pm
Irish loose forwards, counter-attacking threats and scathing French team-talks feature in our preview of Saturday's Six Nations clash in Paris...
France beat Italy 23-21 at the Stade de France last weekend in the opening match of this year's championship, while Ireland ground out a 16-16 draw with Wales in Dublin. Joe Schmidt's men threw away a 13-point lead that they built in the first half, while France were forced to fight back from an eight-point deficit for their win.
France should have celebrated the character shown to overturn the points difference but instead coach Guy Noves was far from impressed with his troops and told them as much behind closed doors in camp this week.
Ireland will want to avoid a French backlash, but where will this game be won and lost?
The French are famous for an attacking brand of rugby, and likewise infamous for their unpredictability.
Aside from the cynical view that they communicate their game-plan to each other via Chinese whispers, France appear most content when they are allowed to express themselves without restriction, but former Wales international Ieuan Evans says their lack of coherent game-plan makes them vulnerable against Ireland.
"I watched France last week and as much as they're trying to play a bit more rugby - and with Virimi Vakatawa on the wing they will be a handful - you still look at their shape, and there is very little of it to understand what their tactics are," said Evans.
"If any side is equipped to take advantage of those issues in an opposing side, it's a side coached by Joe Schmidt."
The former Lion believes Ireland could punish France from the turnover if the home side play too loosely.
"France seem more and more intent to play an offloading game, which tends to mean there are offers out there to counter-attack if Ireland are prepared to do it," Evans added.
"Ireland kept the ball in hand far more than we're used to last week, it will be interesting to see whether they do the same this weekend."
French out wide
France will not be put off by Ireland's ability to counter-attack, they will still look to throw the ball around, which is personified by the selection of quick-footed Jonathan Danty ahead of the hard-hitting Mathieu Bastareaud.
"The top aim for me is to break the line then send a pass of 15 or 20 metres to my winger, and then watch him touch down over the line," said Danty.
But he's not the only one that has the ability to unlock the Irish defence. Winger Vakatawa made his debut for Les Bleus last week, and scored a try in his first shift for France.
Coming from a background in Sevens rugby, Vakatawa is ruthless when given width to work with, and according to Ireland winger Dave Kearney, his side won't be allowing that to happen.
"You've just got to get into him and get up as quick as you can," Kearney said. "He'll be looking for the space and wanting to exploit any gaps."
Form or history?
Ireland's record against France in Paris does not make for happy reading. A win for Brian O'Driscoll's side in 2014 is one of two victories Ireland have managed in their last 22 trips to the French capital.
However, Ireland are currently enjoying supremacy over their French counterparts, having not lost to France since a warm-up match in Dublin ahead of the 2011 World Cup.
Despite this, No 10 Johnny Sexton says he and his team-mates will not be taking their opponents lightly.
"We've prepared really well for it, we've tried to give them the respect they deserve. I don't think you can ever go to Paris confident. They are never beaten over there, it's a tough place to go.
"Just because we've had a little purple patch against them doesn't mean anything now."
French up front
After France battled to a 23-21 victory over Italy in Paris, a few eyebrows were raised about the state of the French pack. Once feared for their venom, claims that the French forwards had 'gone soft' were voiced when Italy took an eight-point lead late in the second half.
Captain and hooker Guilhem Guirado has called for a more imposing performance from his forwards.
"We must play much better in defence, tackle better, and be stronger on our line," Guirado said. "They're very strong in the scrum. We've been working hard to counter that."
Coach Guy Noves was damning in his review of the Italy game.
"We prepared last week with a lot of dreams in our minds," said Noves.
When asked by a journalist this week if he had shaken his squad up with some strong words, Noves would not elaborate but did not refute the question.
"I hope they listened to me, we'll see on Saturday."
Irish back row
One area where Ireland are particularly threatening is in the back row.
The last time these two sides met was in Cardiff during last year's World Cup, a game in which Ireland were dominant at the breakdown, led by man-of-the-match Sean O'Brien.
O'Brien missed out last week, but returns to the starting team in the No 7 jersey this week, and he joins newcomer CJ Stander, who won the man-of-the-match award for his heroics against Wales on Sunday.
Stander carried the ball 23 times into the Welsh defence in Dublin, which will ease some of the duties of O'Brien, who has played that role for Ireland on many occasions. No 8 Jamie Heaslip completes the Irish loose trio. Last week the Leinsterman tied with Jack McGrath for the most tackles put in by Irish defenders, with 18 hits on Welsh attackers overall.
The Irish have enviable balance in their back row, and as a unit they will look to complement the work of the tight five in the set piece, as well as disrupt France's desire to play the game at their own speed.
France: 15 Maxime Medard, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sebastien Bezy; 1 Jefferson Poirot, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 3 Uini Atonio, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 5 Yoann Maestri, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 7 Yacouba Camara, 8 Damien Chouly.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Hugo Bonneval.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 1 Jack McGrath, 2 Rory Best (c), 3 Nathan White, 4 Mike McCarthy, 5 Devin Toner, 6 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O'Brien, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: 16 Richard Strauss, 17 James Cronin, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fergus McFadden.