March 2003. Christina Aguilera was top of the charts, there were protest’s on the world’s streets as the drums of war were beating, and England ruled the roost in the rugby world. It’s also the last time before today that France had an unchanged team from one week to the other in the 6 Nations.
This French side probably doesn’t match up to the 2003 vintage but they still might be able to get reasonably close to their hosts here. Jacques Brunel finally got some luck as they faced a Scotland side decimated by injury two weeks ago and that platform allowed a much more balanced side to show what they could do. The Toulouse pairing of Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont clicked seamlessly, providing a world of difference to Camille Lopez and Morgan Parra.
Les Bleus’ hulking pack, led by Guilhem Guirado, was outstanding with Louis Picamoles, Arthur Iturria, and Wenceslas Lauret putting in the hard yards and with the quick ball and helpful conditions, we saw the best of Thomas Ramos, who deservedly keeps his place, Damian Penaud and Yohann Huget, freed of his ill-suited responsibilities at fullback.
That is a promising platform for France going ahead, although they had the perfect storm of Scotland side decimates of their best players at home on a dry day. Facing Ireland in Dublin is likely to be a very different task compared to the Scots, especially given that Joe Schmidt an field close to a full strength pack.
However, there’s no reason for France to write themselves off too early. Ireland have won two of their three games in the tournament but there have been weaknesses exposed that weren’t there last year. Ireland’s legendary kick chase has been off a step this season but perhaps more worryingly, their exit strategy has been found wanting, especially against Italy when the Azzuri ran them very close a weeknight ago.
Conor Murray and Johnathan Sexton have not been as fluent as they were last year with Sexton not finding the same Crashball success this season through Bundee Aki, a problem for Ireland going forward. Ireland have struggled to find pace and invention in their attack at times this year and whilst their pack have improved from their opening weekend defeat to England, an inability to cut loose was on show against Italy.
Attacking flair will be the least of Joe Schmidt’s worries with Dublin currently being drenched, and this is a fixture which has traditionally been played as a 10-man game between two of Europe’s largest packs. A continuing response from the Pack to being dominated so comprehensively on the opening weekend – the first time that’s happened at the Aviva in over a year – will be welcomed with a trip to Wales next week against the currently unbeaten Championship leaders.
Bookmakers give Ireland an advantage of roughly 13 points, which feels like a handicap assessment made on last year’s form. Passing and kicking espcially will be nightmarishly difficult in a match that has often been a tight grind.
None of the last eight matches between the two sides has been decided by more than 10 points, and the handicap is the highest set in 10 years. In the last eight years there have been two draws, and even last year – in a match played in poor conditions – it took an amazing 40 plus phases for Ireland to snatch a drop goal that kicked off their Grand Slam year.
This ought to be a game played between two packs in such conditions and it is a bold call to suggest there’s 14 points between the two.
5 pts France +14 (evens SkyBet, Hills)
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Jack Conan, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Jordan Larmour
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Felix Lambey, 4 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Maxime Medard
Date: Sunday, March 10
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)