Both France and Ireland would have hoped to be going into this 6 Nations as World Champions. After successfully overcoming southern hemisphere threats in the groups, they fell at the first hurdle in the knockouts at the expense of eventual finalists New Zealand and South Africa. This marked a disappointing tournament for these two teams who had ambitions of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
Since the World Cup, both teams have experienced significant losses. Ireland is without Sexton, an Irish legend who has owned that number 10 shirt for the past decade. His replacement, Jack Crawley, is of course no slouch. In his nine test appearances for Ireland and 45 caps with his club, Munster, Crawley has looked every bit like a player who can develop to fill the shoes of his predecessors.
Also absent is winger Mack Henson, who will sit out of this tournament due to a dislocated shoulder. With Jimmy O’Brien out because of a neck injury as well, Calvin Nash earns his first Ireland start. Nash has only been capped once off the bench in a World Cup warm-up match versus Argentina but failed to make the squad that went to France. This will be a big test for Nash.
France’s depth is also tested. At Scrum Half, France is without captain and world-class player Antoine Dupont. He is in the France 7s team in preparation for the Olympics, meaning Lucu gets the nod. Playing outside Lucu at fly-half is Jalibert, as usual, as the first choice Ntamack remains injured. The two Bordeaux half-backs are in good form, with their team sitting 3rd in the very competitive Top 14.
As Ireland’s head coach coined it, Friday’s game is likely to be ‘a war of attrition’. With the strength of both teams, it could be a rather physical affair. To preempt this, Ireland has chosen to have a 6-2 split on the bench, hoping to match the French brute force for the full 80 minutes.
As a result, accuracy from the kicking tee will be crucial. Converting penalties won by the forwards will be essential for success in what will be a tight game. As mentioned, Crawley will have to step up to the mark as the Irish fans have taken the excellent kicking of the Sexton era for granted. Ramos, the French full-back, is well renowned for his kicking abilities. An asset, any penalty for France will easily gain them 3 points – a threatening part of the game which Ireland must take note of.
The kicking game in live play will also help dictate the outcome of the game. Without the 100% accuracy from the box kick that Dupont brings for the French, Lucu has a big role to play. In green, Gibson-Park at 9 is as good as one can get at box kicking, and the massive boot of the winger James Lowe will probably give Ireland the edge in this area of the game.
Whilst predicted to be a close tactical encounter, both sides possess the talent and know-how to play expansive quick rugby. Aki and Henshaw as centre players for Ireland offer the contrast in size and speed which makes for an exciting combo. This is matched only by Danty and Fickou who have time and time again proven their ability ball in hand.
Antonio versus Porter: The battle between the sheer mass of the French tighthead versus the ability and success of the scrum by the Irish loosehead could be significant in swinging the penalty count in either of the team’s favour. Both offer themselves as good carriers of the ball, but it is during the scrums that their impact will be felt.
The back row: All three players for both Ireland and France in the back row are of a calibre considered close to world-class, with former world player of the year Van Der Flier no exception to that. In a game that’s expected to be so close – matching a trend set from past fixtures – the ability to dominate the breakdown when in possession as well as sniff for turnovers in defence will create the momentum needed to win the game.
Ramos versus Keenan: Both world-class full-backs in their own right, these two often appear as flawless in both defence and attack. The game could well see a lot of kicking, so being solid under the high ball and kicking ball in hand precisely will determine which areas of the pitch the game is played in. These two players also have the option to be the initiators of exciting rugby. Knowing when to run with the ball and using the pacey wingers are skills that each player will have at their disposal, which will not only create the opportunity to score tries but also change the way that the game will be played.
I predict that Ireland will win by 6. I think the French will feel more of a gap in their forces due to their missing players than the Irish. The impact Dupont has on the game won’t be able to be replaced. Whilst Ireland will struggle without Sexton, the fact that these Irish boys play together in teams for their provinces and at club level will aid them and may be enough to see them through this tough first match. But, for this to happen, Ireland must win the battle that will take place among the players playing the forwards positions.