Preview: France v Ireland

Date published: February 12 2016

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Ireland head to Paris looking to overcome a short turnaround and get their Six Nations campaign back on track against France in the Six Nations on Saturday.

Drawing at home to Wales is no disaster, especially after going behind in the final ten minutes, but the way Ireland’s 13-0 lead gradually disappeared combined with the shortest of turnarounds from last Sunday – Ireland will have had four days on the training paddock at Carton House before travelling to Paris on Friday – means that Joe Schmidt and his back-to-back champions are up against it.

Schmidt’s mask of calm rarely slips but even the Ireland coach went as far to say that the past week has been “an unsettling and frustrating period.”

Bringing back in 113 caps worth of experience in the shape of Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney should certainly calm things down.

Last Sunday’s clash of the Six Nations’ most recent champions though was a bruiser. Ireland made more tackles, 170, than ever before in a Six Nations game since Schmidt took charge. You can bet that even in the modern age of rehabilitation, the bodies have taken some time to recover.

CJ Stander in that game produced one of the most impressive Test debuts in recent memory, carrying with a persistence that points to long-term success with his adopted country.

France’s new caps never quite hit that mark on their first outing but we’ve seen enough of Virimi Vakatawa to know that once he nails down his positioning and some aspects of the rulebook, we could see something very special from the Sevens convert. For now expect him to be targeted persistently by Ireland's kicking game.

Jefferson Poirot ahead of Eddy Ben Arous highlights just how rapid the 23-year-old prop’s own rise has been over the last year, his huge scrummaging power favoured by Guy Novès up against Ireland’s Nathan White.

The other change is enforced. Louis Picamoles is arguably France’s most valuable player and to lose him for this game and perhaps beyond Saturday too after his early hamstring injury against Italy is a crushing blow.

The pressure is on his replacement Yacouba Camara to match Ireland’s physicality in the back row and to make his presence felt at the breakdown in only his second Test. 

Check out our preview with Betsafe featuring Six Nations predictions from former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick

Four months have passed since these two sides fought it out to top their World Cup pool and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Ireland only led by five points going into the final ten minutes, before a try by the new captain Rory Best.

France are unrecognisable from that day in Cardiff – only Damien Chouly, Yoann Maestri and Guilhem Guirado remain – and it's tough to judge the new era under Novès after only a few weeks, although the spirit of Saint-André remains given six changes have been made from last week's side. Novès does clearly want France to shift the ball around more given the number of offloads made last weekend – now they need the accuracy.

France's defensive system isn't rock solid just yet, given Ireland an opportunity to exploit, just as France showed enough glimpses in Round 1 to suggest they can become an almighty attacking force again. Saturday's clash is nicely set up.

Players to Watch

For France: Speculation in the build-up to France’s team announcement on Thursday suggested that Sébastien Bézy would be a casualty at scrum-half after his nervy debut. Bézy went from knocking over points with ease for Toulouse to losing his range against Italy, but instead of promoting Jean-Marc Doussain, Novès has opted to give the 24-year-old another chance.

Maxime Mermoz meanwhile makes his full return from the international wilderness after missing the Rugby World Cup, by starting in midfield alongside the exciting Jonathan Danty.

For Ireland: The Irish back row is unquestionably stronger with the return of the Tullow tank and Sean O'Brien's combination with Stander has huge potential. O'Brien has been a vital ball carrier for Ireland throughout his Test career but Stander's presence should give him less of a workload, allowing O'Brien to exert more energy on attacking the breakdown. 

Saturday's game also feels like the first major test of Rory Best's captaincy – taking his troops into an intimidating atmosphere in Paris. Eight wins out of nine for Ireland at the lineout against Wales was a positive.

Head-to-head: Two rising stars in midfield. Jonathan Danty's debut was solid last weekend for les Bleus but there's more to come from the Stade Français star, whose carries rarely fail to break the gain line. After shaking off those first-game nerves this could be a breakout game for the 23-year-old.

He could do worse than matching the excellent start to Test rugby we've seen from Robbie Henshaw. Now a mainstay in the Irish midfield, Henshaw's only Test try so far came against England in last year's Six Nations. He's due a second.

Previous results:

2015: Ireland won 24-9 in Cardiff
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

Prediction: Novès is still trying to put his stamp on a squad he has only had a few weeks to work with. Ireland's systems in comparison are settled, and if they can rebound in the scrum after a tough outing last week, then the platform is there to win. Ireland haven't lost in Paris since 2010 and that run looks set to continue. Ireland by 5.

France: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Teddy Thomas, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Sébastien Bézy, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Yacouba Camara, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Alexandre Flanquart, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot. 
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Rabah Slimani, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Jean-Marc Doussain, 23 Hugo Bonneval

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Nathan White, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Richard Strauss, 17 James Cronin, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Donnacha Ryan, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fergus McFadden

Date: Saturday, February 13
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 15:25 local (14:25 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

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