Friday, February 13, 2015

Preview : Ireland v France


This years Valentine's weekend leaves rugby fans little room for Fifty Shades of Grey as with Ireland putting out teams at full, Under 20, test and club level as well as crucial Pro12 matches for all four provinces, it's more about the Forty Shades of Green.

When it comes to the big encounter at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, what worries me most is that I'm nowhere near as worried as I usually am when we meet France.  And Lord knows, I should be.

Basically whenever I think of something that can go against us this weekend, I then remember the Schmidt factor and I don't feel so badly about it.

There's the fact that France always seem to find a way to up their game against us, even in Six Nations tournaments which are going badly for them.  Still, we managed to overcome that hoodoo last March, and what's more, this time we're at home.

There's the fact that although we welcome back key Lions to our squad in Sexton, Heaslip & O'Brien (plus Healy on the bench), coming back after a layoff in such a pivotal encounter is far from ideal.  Still, you could could hardly leave out any of those names when they're available and what's more it will be good for them all to get some game time against the French given our World Cup date with them on October 11.

This point is related to the previous one...there's the fact that this season, more than any other, it has become almost impossible to expect the matchday 23 which is named during the week (for Leinster or Ireland) to be the one that actually takes to the pitch.  Still, knowing how Joe is a stickler for organisation, you can probably bet he'd have a backup plan in place for most contingencies.

And finally, of course, there's the fact that undoubtedly there will be some big invariable factor which we cannot predict like an early injury or controversial decision by the officials.  Still though, my gut is telling that should it happen on the day, it could work in our favour, but keep that between you and me, will you? ;-)

Seriously though...hand on heart I have to say I'm confident of this match.  I don't LIKE saying that being an Irish fan because it's not in our DNA but this is something I'm going to be harpin on between now and RWC2015 so you may as well get used to it...if a final four finish is our goal, we have to start thinking like it.

Once we play with the kind of accuracy that Joe Schmidt demands on the day, the French are going to find it very difficult to keep up with us, and I'd even go as far to say that iwe could well out-do the 6-point spread the bookies are offering.

A key area will be in the centre.  Few would have expected the Henshaw/Payne duo but they clearly have the Schmidt seal of approval and one of the advantages of their having played mostly in other positions is that Joe can get them doing exactly what HE wants them to in their roles instead of straying into old habits.   And in Rome it has to be said as a pairing they grew into the game as it wore on so with a second outing in as many weeks they can improve even more.  

But it's at set pieces where we need to excel.  I know that's pretty much a given for any rugby team especially at this level, but it matters doubly so for Joe Schmidt.  In Rome we got some headway on their scrum and even more on their lineouts, but personally I'd trade that for us to be guaranteed possession on our own feeds and throws.  

The French have added Eddy Ben Arous to their front row while not only do we have the same trio we now have Healy on the bench.  As always I prefer not to speculate too much on front row battles as there a lot more than fifty shades of grey in that area but on paper anyway it would seem we've enough to make a solid platform.

Naturally we can expect the French to test our defence to the fullest.  Teddy Thomas has had some YouTube moments in his short test career so far but I'd expect Yoann Huget on the other wing to be more of a danger.  He helped them get their try last March and strikes me as the type who would tend to up his game in a hostile atmosphere.

Add to those wingers the strength of Spedding and Bastareaud and the talents of Fofana who was quiet enough last week so is due a good outing, and you can be sure our tackling and coverage will need to be at its sharpest.

But the matchup which gives me the most confidence is that of the halfbacks.  Lopez hasn't won me over yet in a position where Frenchmen tend to excel,  while Kockott definitely has the ability but still has to find his feet at this level.  If Murray and Sexton can grab this game by the scruff of the neck early we can surely build a lead the French won't find as easy to claw back as they have in previous encounters with us.

Finally there's the bench...many have remarked about Felix Jones giving us a saturation of full-backs.  For me, not only is he also a good wing option but I'd say that if nothing else his inclusion shows just how much Joe wants Jared Payne to fill the 13 jumper for the full 80 minutes.  Elsewhere in the replacements I'd have been happier with Marmion ahead of Boss and Messrs Keatley & O'Donnell will see themselves unlucky to be left out.

So when it comes to predictions, maybe it's the romance of the weekend getting the better of me, but I'm going to go for us by ten points.  Hopefully I won't be going fifty shades of red afterwards!  

Best wishes to the Irish Women, Under 20s and the Club sides as well.  Such a shame they all have to play the same weekend (let alone the provinces!) as I would very much like to be able to see them all.

#COYBIG #COYGIG #Wolfpuppies #ShoulderToShoulder JLP

FRANCE: 15 Scott Spedding; 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas; 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott
1 Eddy Ben Arous, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 3 Rabah Slimani; 4 Pascal Pape, 5 Yoann Maestri; 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 8 Damien Chouly.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Remi Tales, 23 Remi Lamerat.

Saturday. February 14, 2015
Aviva Stadium 5pm
REF : Wayne Barnes (RFU)
AR1 : Nigel Owens (WRU)
AR2 : Stuart Berry (SARU)
TMO : Graham Hughes (RFU)

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