Saturday evening’s match in Bordeaux involves arguably the best two teams never to win the World Cup. I say “arguably” because that statement does a major disservice to Argentina, who actually beat both of them back in 2007. Still, when you look at their current squads, I believe the claim is a reasonable one.
France in particular have done everything in the tournament BUT win it since its inception in 1987. Twice finalists, five times semi finalists, and twice have eliminated the mighty All Blacks. So to say they might feel they’re due would be a bit of an understatement!
However, much like their Irish opponents this weekend, despite the fact they have won a Grand Slam in recent years, their form ever since have been poor by their standards. Heavy defeats to South Africa, Argentina again and the Wallabies led to a poor defence of their Six Nations crown which culminated in that famous defeat in Rome.
So it is safe to say that whatever wave there was for coach Marc Lievremont to ride on from 2010 has well and truly crashed on French shores, and he is in dire need of a decent showing at the Rugby World Cup. And the draw wasn’t exactly kind to him either, placing his squad in the same pool as the All Black hosts, who will be keen for revenge for their quarterfinal defeat in Cardiff four years ago.
They begin their warm up series on home soil, but away from their familiar surroundings of the Stade de France. For only the third time in history, they will play at the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux – not a traditional rugby stadium, but one that hosted both France and Ireland’s defeats of Namibia back in 2007.
And true to form, Lievremont raised many an eyebrow back in May when he named his provisional 32-man squad and left out such household names as Chabal, Jauzion and Poitrenaud. You can only assume he has a particular game plan in mind for the upcoming festival in New Zealand we can only wait and see what that will be.
They begin their warm up campaign, of course, against an Irish squad still smarting from that 11th hour Joe Ansbro try at Murrayfield. Declan Kidney refused to be distracted by the result, however, and with his selection for Saturday, appears to be also locked in on a plan to see as many combinations as possible before he names his final 30 for the plane.
Leo Cullen remains as captain but this time partners Donnacha O’Callaghan in the second row. This will be an interesting pairing to watch, particularly as most see them as rivals to accompany Paul O’Connell.
Also in the forwards, Donnacha Ryan has moved from lock to number 6. After Mike McCarthy was moved into the second row last Saturday, its clear Kidney is looking for a versatile 4th lock option for his squad, and this will be the Munster man’s chance to show what he can do.
In the backs, few who have viewed the coaches’ selection patterns lately were surprised that the starting halfback pairing was Reddan and O’Gara, given that O’Leary and Sexton started last week. It was interesting, however, that Peter Stringer was allowed return to Munster and instead the uncapped Conor Murray was named on the bench. The youngster indeed impressed at provincial level towards the end of last season but will have quite the baptism of fire against the French assuming he comes on around the 60 minute mark.
But what interests me most about the selection has been the perseverance with Paddy Wallace at inside centre. With D’Arcy doubtful the fact this is his second start must show something of Kidney’s plans, and the fact that he is our only recognised cover at 10 means he is likely to be on the field for another full 80-minute shift barring injury.
Given he hardly set the world alight in Edinburgh, plus the fact that he and O’Gara are hardly renowned as Test rugby’s best tacklers, clearly hands the French a ready-made weak spot to exploit in Bordeaux.
And the best time for them to run at that 10/12 channel will be after a set scrum, so although we have a solid front row, it will be interesting to see how our flankers are deployed on the French put-in. Sean O’Brien returns to the team at his less familiar role of open side and no doubt will be expected to stop the advances of the likes of Dusautoir and Yachvilli before they can do too much damage.
But outside Wallace we see Earls at 13. A very interesting choice indeed – and I feel that on occasions where we have good attacking positions on or beyond the French 22 he will be the go to man to break through the French defence. He showed several times last season, not least the Magners League final, that he can finish well from the most awkward of positions, let alone ones that will no doubt be tailor made for his excellent line-running on Saturday.
Although there are many changes to the Irish side, the back three of Fitzgerald, Kearney and Trimble remains the same. They all did well last weekend and deserve a chance to show what they can do against what is still a strong, if experimental, French XV.
Which leads me to my prediction. I’m making it based on the French will to hit the ground running coupled with the fact that Ireland’s defence appears to be weaker than it was last week. I believe we will have as little possession as we had in Murrayfield, I believe the French will make better use of that possession, and I believe they will be ahead of us by a double-digit margin by the 60 minute mark.
Both sides have strong benches and when names like Parra, Heaslip, Medard and O’Connell enter the fray, there should be quite the battle but I feel O’Gara’s kicking prowess will serve us best at this time and we should have the better of the final stages, though I still see us going down by more than a converted try.
Of course I hope I’m wrong, but still even a second defeat in a row won’t dampen my spirits for the World Cup. Kidney has made it clear that he is keen on looking at different combinations so we must let him get on with the business of doing that. With three matches still to come before the big trip down under, there’s time to get things right.
Enjoy the match wherever you’ll be watching and I’ll be back next week to preview the return match between these two in Dublin. JLP
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