Ireland return to Paris on Sunday for their rescheduled Six Nations clash with Les Bleus at a sold out Stade de France.
Ireland return to Paris on Sunday for their rescheduled Six Nations clash with Les Bleus at a sold out – and much warmer – Stade de France.
La FÃ©dÃ©ration FranÃ§aise de Rugby have announced that the 8000 to 9000 tickets that were reimbursed after the postponement of the original game on February 11, have all been sold.
While many Irish fans who made the trip for the initial fixture will be left with a bitter taste in their mouths as they are forced to watch the rescheduled match on TV, it's fair to say that this clash deserves a full stadium.
Judging by last week's performance against Italy – the second half in particular – the visitors should give the pre-tournament favourites a real run for their money. This is despite the fact that 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 (when Brian O'Driscoll scored a famous hat-trick) – their only victory in Paris since 1972.
Nevertheless, with a settled team as well as coming off the back of a big victory over the Azzurri and a narrow loss to an impressive-looking Welsh side, Declan Kidney's men will believe they can win.
And a settled side they certainly are. Kidney has named an unchanged 22 for the third consecutive week and the same XV that was originally picked to face France.
For those Irish supporters who have been calling for change to the 'aging' Irish side, it's worth noting that the average age of France's starting XV is two years higher than Ireland's at 29.
France field a side with 660 caps while Ireland have marginally less collective experience with 610.
Les Bleus will head into the game with a healthy dose of confidence after two wins under their new coach. Five of France's XV and nine of the 22-man matchday squad have never lost to Ireland at senior international level.
There will two main concerns for the hosts: first and foremost will be the line-out. The French struggled against both Italy and Scotland in an area that is one of Ireland's strongest points.
Dimitri Szarzewski has spoken of the need for time to blend the new calls into France's old system, but they cannot afford to hand over possession cheaply they way they did against Italy or at Murrayfield.
The second issue is what the French like to call l'animation offensive. The wings have touched the ball just 26 times between them in 160 minutes of rugby, a sign of France's struggle to create movement from structured attack.
Granted, they have counter-attacked brilliantly but when faced with a well-organised defence such as Ireland's, simply living off the opposition's mistakes will not be enough.
In both regards – line-outs and attacking cohesion – the extra preparation time afforded to the XV de France by the postponement will be seen as a blessing in disguise. Instead of facing Ireland with just two weeks preparation, they have now been together under their new coaches for a month.
One thing that hasn't changed under the new regime is France's power at scrum time and the Irish pack will face a stiff challenge if they are compete when ref Dave Pearson calls 'engage!'… Mike Ross is likely to be targeted by a very experienced French from row.
France have won nine consecutive games at the Stade de France, a run stretching back to the 2008 Six Nations. Can Ireland upset the applecart? We'll find out on Sunday.
Players to watch:
For France: Clermont flank Julien Bonnaire has been promoted to the starting XV ahead of Louis Picamoles, a decision which has sparked great debate. Bonnaire's height will give France an extra line-out option, which will certainly come in handy. The 33-year-old has admitted he had planned on retiring after the World Cup but couldn't bring himself to leave the scene on a negative note and is hoping to end his career in Bleu with a Grand Slam. He has never lost to Ireland in six Championship matches. Vincent Clerc wins his 60th cap on Saturday and represents France's most potent attacking threat against Ireland, having scored five times in his six Championship appearances against Declan Kidney's men. Those tries against Ireland represent nearly half of Clerc's total number of tries scored in the Six Nations (eleven).
For Ireland: As the old saying goes, size doesn't mean everything but Keith Earls has a huge task on his hands in trying to stop AurÃ©lien Rougerie, who is 16kg heavier and 13cm taller than the Munsterman. Earls is a good tackler, but many feel Ireland would be better served by an all-Leinster midfield with Fergus McFadden at thirteen. Earls will know the best way to prove his doubters wrong. The same goes for Conor Murray who has been criticised for the pace at which he serves his backline. He will need a big game to keep Eoin Reddan from taking over.
Head-to-head: ClÃ©ment Poitrenaud makes his first start for France in the Six Nations since appearing in the 9-17 loss to England one year ago. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes a liability, the Toulouse man's battle with Rob Kearney could be vital. With Ireland potentially looking for field position to exploit the presumed French line-out fragility, Poitrenaud's kicking game will be under scrutiny from his opposite number, who has been in sterling form. For fans of big hits, the battle of the back-rows is set to be a highlight of the whole tournament. Harinordoquy-Bonnaire-Dusautoir v O'Brien-Heaslip-Ferris…boom, boom, boom!
This weekend's game is the 90th meeting between the two sides. France have won 56 of those against Ireland's 29 victories, while there have been five draws.
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: Looking back over the last ten years, these sides have faced each other 14 times and Ireland have claimed victory just twice. France's home record is very impressive and we feel that they have just a little bit more firepower. France by six points!