Preview: France v Ireland

Date published: October 9 2015

France and Ireland face off on Sunday for the prize of avoiding New Zealand in the quarter-finals of the World Cup as well as completing a perfect run through the pool stages.

In one of the easier pools in the tournament, only once has either side really been pushed, with Ireland having to dig deep to see off Italy on Sunday.

Other than that it’s been plain sailing, with both teams recording comfortable wins over Romania and Canada, and les Bleus downed the Italians 32-10 in their opening fixture.

With that in mind, it’s hard to really gauge where the two sides stand. France have won five in a row for the first time under Philippe Saint-André, while Ireland are the two-time defending Six Nations champions.

Both have reason to be confident, and yet there are doubts surrounding the teams which will only be quietened with a win on Sunday in Cardiff.

First Ireland, up as high as number two in the world earlier this year, but seemingly struggling for their best form as a lack of accuracy really held them back last week.

Joe Schmidt prepares for everything in the most minute detail, so the handling errors and needless penalties conceded against Italy will not have gone down well.

That will be a familiar story for Saint-André, who now has a dominant pack, but has seen his team concede double digit penalties in every game so far.

They have come in for heavy criticism from the French press for their performances, despite three comfortable wins, and a seige mentality appears to have emerged as a result.

Written off by many, Saint-André has sarcastically joked about his team standing no chance, but this will almost certainly be his last chance to get a win over Ireland, having drawn two and lost two in his four years in charge.

When the teams last met in Dublin during the Six Nations, France actually scored the only try. However a lack of discipline proved costly, as Johnny Sexton kicked 15 of Ireland’s 18 points in the one-score victory.

The incentive to avoid the All Blacks is huge, with Ireland having never beaten New Zealand, while France’s last win over the All Blacks came back in 2009. Even if Argentina are something of a bogey team for les Bleus, they will have a better shot of reaching the last four if they top the pool, with the same being said for Ireland.

Saturday will be a special occasion for Louis Picamoles when he brings up a half century of caps for his country, brought back into the side by Saint-André in one of two changes as Noa Nakaitaci starts on the wing.

13 of the side who faced Italy in France’s opening match return, with Wesley Fofana for Alexandre Dumoulin and Nakaitaci in for Yoann Huget bring the only changes.

Ireland meanwhile make three changes from last week’s game with Italy, although Keith Earls gets the nod at outside centre after Jared Payne’s failed fitness test, with Devin Toner and Cian Healy returning in the tight five.

Rob Kearney is another welcome returnee as he starts at full-back.

Ones to Watch

For France: If France are to beat Ireland, they will need to get quick ball at the breakdown and negate the influence of Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien. To do that, Thierry Dusautoir will need to be at his very best, but after a couple of injury-hit years, he is starting to find some form. With six turnovers already in just two games, Dusautoir is making his presence felt at the breakdown, an area France were completely outplayed in the game he missed against Romania.

Les Bleus will also hope to get the better of the scrum battle, but with back-up loosehead Vincent Debaty struggling, their depth is being put to the test, as first choice tighthead Rabah Slimani is next in line on the other side of the scrum.

For Ireland: Jared Payne’s failed fitness test not long before Ireland named their side has meant a return to the starting XV for Keith Earls. The sole try scorer against Italy last Sunday, Earls has looked sharp on his return but faces a tough ride handling the prowess of Wesley Fofana and Mathieu Bastareaud, who will no doubt target him defensively.

Cian Healy could also be in for a stern examination on his return to the starting lineup. The French scrum has been the foundation of their recent revival, while Healy has had very little game time since recovering from neck surgery. He is one of Joe Schmidt’s most trusted forwards though, and in such a big game, gets the nod over Jack McGrath to start.

Head-to-head: While they will rarely line up opposite one another, the battle between the two fly-halves will be fascinating in this game. Much has been made in the French press this week of Johnny Sexton’s struggles during his two-year spell with Racing 92, as he struggled to recreate his international form at club level. He will be targeted by the French, as he has been on the last two occasions the teams have met, but Ireland won both of those games.

For France, Frédéric Michalak has been one of the more pleasant surprises in the tournament so far, with a wonderful individual display against Canada, after marshalling les Bleus to victory over Italy. The much-maligned fly-half has an outstanding record against Ireland, with six wins and a draw from his seven games against them, but has not faced them under Joe Schmidt. You can be sure the Kiwi will have a plan for Michalak, but the now veteran ten has shown his experience in the tournament so far.

Previous results:

2015: Ireland won 18-11 in Dublin
2014: Ireland won 22-20 in Paris
2013: They drew 13-13 in Dublin
2012: They drew 17-17 in Paris
2011: France won 26-22 in Dublin
2011: France won 19-12 in Bordeaux
2011: France won 25-22 in Dublin
2010: France won 33-10 in Paris
2009: Ireland won 30-21 in Dublin
2008: France won 26-21 in Paris
2007: France won 25-3 in Paris
2007: France won 20-17 in Dublin

Prediction: It should be tight between two evenly-matched teams. Neither has been entirely convincing so far, and it’s hard to really predict which way it will go. With that in mind we’ll trust the better coach and more reliable fly-half and go for Ireland to edge it. Ireland by 3!

The teams:

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Brice Dulin, 10 Frédéric Michalak, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Damien Chouly, 6 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Nicolas Mas, 19 Alexandre Flanquart, 20 Bernard le Roux, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Alexandre Dumoulin

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Nathan White, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Chris Henry, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Luke Fitzgerald

Date: Sunday, October 11
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 16:45 local (15:45 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

by Paul Eddison