Where Ireland's Six Nations match with France may be won or lost
In the countdown to the meeting between the world No 1 ranked rugby team and reigning Grand Slam winners, Telegraph Sport marks the cards of Ireland and France following the opening round of Six Nations matches.
But who holds the advantage ahead of Saturday’s meeting at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin?
Their pack is in great shape. The victory over Wales on Saturday was built on a blistering start from their forwards, proving unstoppable from close range. Both Caelan Doris and James Ryan crossed. The former produced a particularly monstrous performance. Doris made 19 tackles without missing one and 56 metres from his 15 carries. At the set piece, Andy Farrell’s men were typically solid. Paul O’Connell has the line-out purring (Ireland safely secured all 15 of their own, while stealing two of Wales’s), while the visitors won six out of their seven scrums. And this was without the world’s best tighthead Tadhg Furlong, who will also be unavailable for France.
Italy managed to achieve parity against a hefty, brainy French pack but there are few sets of forwards as balanced in all facets of up-front grunt as France. Ireland might be the pack – with both props and No 8 often playing as if they are centres – to match France but, one thing’s for sure, it’s going to be an almighty tussle. Italy, despite a front row which surrendered a significant amount of weight to the French, gave the visitors to Rome a few things to think about. Given Ireland’s scrummaging prowess, this could be one area they could exploit. And, without Cameron Woki, France are missing a line-out jumper with world-class athleticism. Defensively, expect fireworks – it will be full-throttle.
Ireland 9 France 8
Jamison Gibson-Park’s 11th-hour withdrawal on Saturday was a cause of real concern for travelling Ireland fans who felt the tempo of Farrell’s side might be affected. In the end, Conor Murray rose to the occasion, rolling back the years to provide his team with a solid platform. But Murray is getting on, and not even starting for Munster at the moment. Ireland will be without Gibson-Park again on Saturday. Elsewhere, Ireland’s backline is in decent shape although the continued reliance on Johnny Sexton at No 10 is an issue. With such stable foundations, though, Ireland have been able to add ever greater complexity to their backline moves.
There is supreme talent wherever you look – as well as the best player in the world – but that does not detract from the fact that France, in their previous few games, have not been at their devastating best in the wide channels. Injury has forced their hand somewhat – Jonathan Danty and Gabin Villière would undoubtedly have started in Rome on Sunday had the duo been fit – but question marks remain about numerous positions behind the scrum for France. Yoram Moefana was solid but nothing more in the victory over Italy while head coach Fabien Galthié has never quite managed to find a full-back to whom he can commit; Thomas Ramos and Melvyn Jaminet both almost alternating in and out of the jersey. And is Romain Ntamack – despite his unbound talent – really the man to lead France’s attack at fly-half? More on that below.
Ireland 8 France 7
Farrell was at pains to say what a difference the bench made to Ireland’s win over Wales, wresting back control of the contest after a tricky third quarter. This is an area in which Ireland have improved hugely since 2019 when they last took the No 1 spot in the rankings only to suffocate and stagnate under Joe Schmidt. Farrell has blooded plenty of fringe players, and they all seem to know what they are doing when called upon. Even in the so-called problem position of No 10, Ross Byrne made an impact after replacing Johnny Sexton for the last 20 minutes or so. Ireland can look forward to the France game with confidence in the squad’s depth.
With injuries to some key men – Danty, Peato Mauvaka and Woki among them – France’s depth is being tested. Their bench does not quite have the same fear factor as when they are at full strength but its impact cannot be underestimated. Against Italy, both Romain Taofifénua and Sekou Macalou impressed off the bench, dragging France over the line in Rome. While Nolann Le Garrec did not get on, he is a livewire understudy to Antoine Dupont. And, outside of those, the debate will rage as to who should start at fly-half. Ntmack showed flashes of brilliance against Italy, but so did Matthieu Jalibert – and the latter clinched the match-winning score. France are spoilt for choice in the No 10 jersey but it might be time to give Jalibert’s more holistic strengths a chance.
Ireland 8 France 9
One area in which France probably do have the edge is X Factor. For all that Ireland are solid and well-structured, they still don’t have the all-court game of a France or a New Zealand or even an Australia. They don’t have a conjuror at No 9 like Dupont, or a magician at No 10 like Ntamack. They do not throw it around like the All Blacks. Ireland only attempted five off-loads on Saturday, half as many as Wales. Which is not to say Ireland are one-dimensional. Far from it. The likes of Garry Ringrose, James Lowe, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong and Hugo Keenan are all capable of doing something special and the confidence to try it too.
An easy one. Over the past three years, France have proved that, when they flick a switch, when they are in the right mood, they are unstoppable; more so than any other team in world rugby. Dupont continues to marvel despite being tracked like a huntsman no matter the opposition. Ntamack can pull rabbits out of berets and sometimes it does not seem that even Damian Penaud knows what he is going to do next – let alone the defence. Whenever people mention France’s X Factor, their joie de vivre, it is reminiscent of, ironically, Covid. They arrived at Twickenham in the 2021 Six Nations and somehow lost against one of the grittiest English displays of the Eddie Jones era – behind closed doors. But, it took a lot of English might to muster that victory; France rocked up with the most cliched insouciance, but played some of the most penetrative and accurate attacking rugby that Twickenham has ever seen – over an 80-minute sustained period. Some of their play, when they are in the right mood, takes the breath away.
Ireland 7 France 10
After a 2-1 series victory in New Zealand last summer, and an unbeaten autumn that included wins over Australia and South Africa, it is no surprise that Ireland are brimming with confidence. It will not hurt either that France were pushed all the way by Italy on Sunday. Farrell has said many times that the most important thing for Ireland is to “play like themselves”; to embrace the pressure that comes with being the No 1 ranked team in the world. After choking badly four years ago, there are signs this Ireland team are doing just that.
This is a tricky one to judge. On the one hand, the current French team are record-breakers; on an unprecedented 14-match winning streak, unbeaten in 2022 – including a Grand Slam and victory over the reigning world champions – and possess some of the best players in the world. Yet, they seem fallible. Italy were tremendous against them on Sunday – and in winning that match France cannot be accused of underperforming – but since their Grand Slam last year they have lacked the authority with which some of their previous wins were laced. There have been question marks over the French teams in the Champions Cup, too. Dublin is not an ideal destination for a team that is not overflowing with confidence but, concurrently, imagine the morale boost they would receive were they to conquer Ireland at home. The world would be their oyster.