Tournament favorites France make their second road trip in this Six Nations before a welcome return to the Stade de France. While some have said that France don’t travel well, we’d argue that is not borne out in results. If you look at their performances in 2020, of four matches away they won two and lost two. Of the two they lost, their final away game against England in the Autumn Nations Cup was such an impressive team effort that saw them fall just short of a victory, that it’s hard to criticize. They arrive in Dublin off the back of an impressive demolition of a spirited Italian side. Ireland will be a much tougher assignment, but Ireland are hardly exuding the kind of confidence that France seem to be reveling in. Ireland’s loss to Wales last weekend after a stop-start disjointed performance marred by poor discipline did not exactly come as a surprise. A crisis of leadership within the team, a group of veterans hurtling towards their sell by date, and a lack of belief in Ireland’s next generation are all the ingredients of a team lacking shape and definition as to what sort of game they want to play. France suffer from no such conundrums, they know exactly what kind of game they want to play and who they want to play it. Ireland will have to dig very deep on Sunday, and show like Wales last weekend that there is light at the end of a rebuilding process that is long overdue and is clearly faltering.
Fabien Galthie is already well on his way to lifting the Coach of the year award, and watching his expertly drilled and managed charges in action is rapidly becoming the highlight of any Test Rugby weekend. As we’ve already mentioned, unpick France’s seemingly spur of the moment opportunism and you can see a team that is simply putting into practice drills that they are obviously able to do in their sleep. Much like Scotland they have been well coached but not over coached. If you look at Ireland under Joe Schmidt or England with Eddie Jones, you could argue that despite their successes they were coached to the point where they were unable to think beyond the well rehearsed drills of the training ground and apply their own individual creativity to them when necessary. We’d argue that France under Galthie, more so than Scotland, has managed to equip his players with this fine balance. France know exactly what to do, but can also quickly adapt to changing circumstances. France are quick and superbly inventive but it is all backed up by a foundation in the basics that would appear second to none. When you watch Scotland attempt the unthinkable your heart skips a beat as you wonder if they will actually manage to pull it off, whereas with France it all looks remarkably controlled leaving you in relatively little doubt that they know exactly what they are doing and how to pull it off.
Ireland’s chance to shine?
Although, we are slightly baffled to see Leinster’s Ronan Kelleher start on the bench on Sunday once more, with Ulster’s Rob Herring starting despite a shaky performance last weekend, we have a hunch that this is one area where Ireland could really get some dominance over France. Ireland looked better when Kelleher joined the front row and made it an all Leinster trio last weekend. This is a potent Irish weapon and we’d argue superior to France’s offerings particularly off the bench for Sunday, especially as we simply don’t rate French prop Uini Atonio. France are clearly missing the highly dynamic Camille Chat out with injury, but until then we’d argue this is one area where opposing teams should seek to take advantage and Ireland are well poised to do so on Sunday.
Allez-y les Boks
South African players have a long history with les Bleus and France’s second row partnership of Bernard le Roux and Paul Willemse is paying huge dividends. Le Roux had a massive game against Italy and expect more of the same this weekend. They will be up against it in dealing with Ireland’s Tadhg Beirne who was the Men in Green’s best player last Sunday by a country mile, and his partner Ian Henderson had a good shift for the injured James Ryan. However, there is a chemistry between the two journeyman Springboks that will be hard to match. Provided Julien Marchand provides accurate throwing, and after his performance against Italy there is no reason to think he won’t, Ireland are going to have work hard to contain the two South Africans, and it will be a superb Test of how well Ireland can cope without the talismanic James Ryan.
Should I stay or should I go?
Our hearts really went out to Irish fly half Billy Burns in the dying seconds of last Sunday’s clash with Wales. The pressure on the Test rookie was immense, and he clearly attempted to carve off more than he could really chew with his kick to touch. The ball went dead, and Ireland’s seemingly inevitable last gasp win from a five meter lineout was dead and buried. All great Test matches hinge on such key moments and Burns should have toned down his ambitions and settled for a slightly less ambitious kick for touch. However, we’d argue such lessons need to be learnt in exactly those kind of pressure moments, and as a result despite his selection being forced by injury to veteran Jonathan Sexton this weekend, we think it is the right call for him to get the starting 10 jersey. When he did come on he provided far more urgency and creativity to Ireland’s attack than Sexton, skills which are crying out for game time and the same applies to all of Ireland’s other Sexton understudies.
As for Sexton himself, the press has been dominated by the debate surrounding his long running issues with head injuries. On top of that there is no denying that the 35 year old is just not the force he once was. We personally think that for the sake of his family he should hang up his hat. He has been a great servant of Irish rugby but all good things must come to an end, especially if you want to have a productive post rugby life. His ambition to lead Ireland through the next World Cup is sheer fallacy and is likely to have serious long-term consequences for his health. He knows the risks – they couldn’t be any more clearly laid out and if he chooses to ignore them then he has only himself to blame. In the meantime, the continuing debate about whether he should stay or go is seriously hindering the development of his replacement which is long overdue. In fairness to the jersey and himself Sexton should start to devote his energies to matters on the sidelines, help in the coaching department and let the next generation step up to the plate! If not both he and Irish rugby are likely to suffer in the long-term, and he will leave behind a tarnished legacy of an otherwise great player.
Is this France’s most underrated player?
He was always reliable, but now he’s just downright fantastic. For some strange reason the 30 year old French last line of defense just never seemed to get on International Rugby’s radar. However under Galthie’s tutelage he has really flourished and now has become one of those exceptionally capable and reliable 15s. He may not be the most flash player on the park, but everything he does he does really well. Once the ball comes floating down into France’s 22 there’s that reassuring feeling of being able to say, “it’s OK Dulin’s got it”. His kicking game is excellent, he is outstanding in defense and under the high ball as well as being able to run some handy meters to cap it all off. Just an all round quality player and we are delighted to see him finally getting the recognition he so thoroughly deserves. He is complimented in the backline by a very exciting wing combination of “Mr Excitement” Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere who just gets better with every outing. These three are defensively solid, something that perhaps cannot be said about their Irish opponents with the exception of Keith Earls. Earls was clearly frustrated last week at getting very little ball to show off his attacking prowess, but he was solid in defense. Something which it was hard to say about James Lowe, and this weekend the Kiwi import will have a nightmare on his hands in the shape of Penaud. We stand by what we said about Hugo Keenan at fullback for Ireland, and he didn’t let us down last weekend, despite still having lots to learn at this level, but defensively we think he is improving dramatically and under the high ball he is proving to be exceptionally solid.
This has the potential to be the most exciting contest of the weekend, but one we think ultimately France will come out the winners. They seem to travel much better than in the past, and are so together at the moment it’s hard to see them being unseated by an Irish team still unsure of themselves and which direction they are headed in. Plenty of key battles to be played out, and Ireland certainly have the talent to make this close, but in terms of cohesion they are still struggling to find their straps – a problem France simply doesn’t have. Enjoy what should be a terrific Six Nations weekend, stay safe and we’ll see you again soon.
In the meantime to keep you going here’s another excellent effort by our YouTube fan favorite the mighty Squidge on last weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash.