The two pre-tournament favourites meet at the Aviva Stadium—or Landsowne Road, as most of us still call it—in the final match of the weekend. France had an easy ride against Scotland last weekend, whilst Ireland were almost undone by Italy and will want to bounce back hard.
Ireland know that they only avoided embarrassment against the Italians because their opponents—literally—dropped the ball. If they had held the kickoff having gone 11-10 ahead with two minutes left, the game was theirs. There wasn’t one Irishman who could say that they had a good game that day and only a vastly improved performance on Sunday will do.
Even the return of the fit-again Jamie Heaslip cannot disguise the fact that this is one of the feeblest Irish packs in many years. After the way that Scotland were battered by the French scrum, Ireland are going to have their work cut out to even compete up front.
Gordon D’Arcy was so poor against Italy that he can count himself very lucky to keep his place, but Ireland may be forced into one change to their backs as Tomas O’Leary is struggling with injury and may be replaced by Eoin Reddan at the last minute.
France had a soft time of it against Scotland, and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. They were able to soft pedal from about 60 minutes in and two of Scotland’s three tries came in that period. The Irish will be a much sterner test.
Unsurprisingly, the mighty French pack is unchanged, the only alteration being the return of Sylvain Marconnet to the replacements bench. This in itself suggests that the French are expecting more of a forward battle than they had on Saturday, although the way that the Irish struggled against the Italians suggests that this may not necessarily be the case.
A huge blow for France has been the loss of Maxime Mermoz, who has failed to recover from the shoulder injury that he suffered in the last game. Damien Traille moves from fullback to his more natural position of inside centre, whilst Clement Poitrenaud regains his old spot.
This makes France slightly less of an attacking threat—there was something ethereal about the way that Mermoz slid past defenders in the last game—but does give an extra kicking option from midfield that may make it easier to pin back the aging Irish centres.
Where the Game Will Be Won or Lost
Ireland’s pack could be destroyed before the game is 20 minutes old if they allow too many set pieces to develop. The real battle could be in the loose, where so long as Ireland keep their patience and keep driving over the gain line they can give themselves a chance. The important thing will be not to turn the ball over and not to give the French backs any space; if they don’t do this, they lose.
France to win by at least seven points.