Ireland take their Six Nations campaign to ice-cold Paris on Saturday, aiming to halt a four-game losing streak against France.
Ireland take their Six Nations campaign to ice-cold Paris on Saturday, aiming to halt a four-game losing streak against an impressive looking French side.
The French capital has not been a happy hunting ground for the men in green, who have not won at the Stade de France since 2000 – their only victory in Paris since 1972.
Looking back over the last ten years, these sides have faced each other 14 times and Ireland have claimed victory just twice and although the Irish have been playing some decent rugby at times it's hard to see that trend change this weekend.
The way in which les Bleus dispatched Italy last week presented a number of ominous signs for the other Championship title contenders.
It is important to remember that Phillipe Saint-AndrÃ©'s squad had a week less than everyone else to prepare but looked very solid in defence as the Azzurri came flying out of the blocks before the hosts found their rhythm in the second half and ran riot.
No one in the French camp is suggesting that PSA has tried to revolutionise the way they operate but the common sentiment is that instructions and expectations are far clearer under the new regime than during the Marc LiÃ¨vremont era.
While on the subject of coaches, pressure must surely be mounting on Declan Kidney…or is it?
Not much has changed since the 2009 Grand Slam despite his team's slide down the standings (2nd in 2010 and 3rd in 2011) and the IRB rankings (8th). There is a growing feeling amongst Irish fans that new faces are needed to revive an ageing team but it's not like there is a long queue of youngsters banging on the door. The average age of Saturday's run-on team is 27.9 so they not exactly geriatrics either.
In Kidney's defence, with just a six-day turnaround after a game they nearly won, it would not have made much sense to make wholesale changes.
Back to the game at hand in Paris where Arctic temperatures await the players. TV scheduling commitments have imposed a 21.00 (local time) kick-off. With a handful of domestic games having already been cancelled due to frozen pitches and the mercury expected to drop to 6 degrees below freezing in the capital by the time play starts, all involved are in for an uncomfortable evening.
Vincent Clerc has already spoken of his fears that the pitch – which does not have under-soil heating – will be more suited for ice skating than running rugby. Let's hope the weather doesn't spoil the spectacle.
Speaking of spoiling and Ireland's all-Munster second-row will look to take a page out of Italy's playbook and target the French line-out. Dimitri Szarzewski will not have had loads of practice throwing at Yoann Maestri and after pinching four line-outs off the Welsh, Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan will fancy a repeat performance.
But this weekend's result is likely to depend on Ireland's ability to stop France's very dangerous backs. Morgan Parra replacing Dimitri Yachvili does not weaken the French side at all (remember it was Parra's partnership with FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc that led France to the Grand Slam in 2010). Parra will also join three in-form Clermont team-mates and Vincent Clerc, who is closing in on France's all-time try-scoring record.
During the week both Kidney and O'Connell spoke of the need for Ireland to be a yard faster in defence. You don't need to be a genius to realise that giving les Bleus space is a recipe for disaster.
Players to watch:
For France: Left to make an impact off the bench while Louis Picamoles was handed the number eight jersey, Imanol Harinordoquy didn't disappoint last week with an impressive 16 minutes. It's a hard call to drop the versatile and remarkably consistent Julien Bonnaire but Harinordoquy offers everything that Bonnaire does plus a bit more. A serious threat in the line-out and a ferociously hard hitter, his addition makes the French back three positively scary. Also keep an eye on Toulouse lock Yoann Maestri who has been called on to add some fresh legs to a line-out that struggled last weekend.
For Ireland: Two years ago Jonathan Sexton was being hailed as the most exciting thing to happen to Irish rugby since a guy called Brian. But Ireland's Jonny has yet to stamp his authority on his country's number ten jersey the way his namesake did for England. Sexton left eleven points by the wayside prompting many pundits – in the French press especially – to speculate that Ronan O'Gara would be handed back the reins (again). With ROG still breathing down his neck, Sexton is due a big game and with Irish backs against the wall, now is the time for his star to shine. Andrew Trimble has been in cracking form for Ulster and will need to be at his best against a very well organised French defence.
Head-to-heads: As the old saying goes, size doesn't mean everything but 5ft 11, 90kg Keith Earls has a BIG task on his hands in trying to contain his opposite number: 6ft 4, 106kg AurÃ©lien Rougerie. For the fans of big hits, the battle of the back-rows is set to be a highlight of the whole tournament. Harinordoquy-Picamoles-Dusautoir v O'Brien-Heaslip-Ferris: it doesn't get much better than that!
2011: France won 26-22 at Lansdowne Rd, Dublin
2011: France won 19-12 at Stade Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux
2011: France won 25-22 at Lansdowne Rd, Dublin
2010: France won 33-10 at Stade de France, Paris
2009: Ireland won 30-21 at Croke Park, Dublin
2008: France won 26-21 at Stade de France, Paris
2007: France won 25-3 at Stade de France, Paris (RWC)
2007: France won 20-17 at Croke Park, Dublin
2006: France won 43-31 at Stade de France, Paris
2005: France won 26-19 at Lansdowne Rd, Dublin
2004: France won 35-17 at Stade de France, Paris
2003: France won 43-21 at Colonial Stadium, Melbourne (RWC)
2003: Ireland won 15-12 at Lansdowne Rd, Dublin
2002:France won 44-5 at Stade de France, Paris
Prediction: Expect Ireland to come back strongly after last week's disappointment but France should have enough to get the result. France by eight points.
France: 15 Maxime MÃ©dard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 AurÃ©lien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Imanol Harinordoquy, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (capt), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal PapÃ©, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Dimitri Szarzewski, 1 Jean-Baptiste Poux.
Replacements: 16 William Servat, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Lionel Nallet, 19 Julien Bonnaire, 20 Julien Dupuy, 21 Lionel Beauxis, 22 Maxime Mermoz.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12