Two coaches under huge pressure will send their troops into battle in Dublin on Saturday as France seek their first win in 2013.
Two coaches under massive pressure will send their troops into battle in Dublin on Saturday as France seek their first win in 2013 while Ireland try to bounce back from a title-hope-ending loss at Murrayfield.
The stats don't look good for either side. Consecutive Championship losses for Ireland – for the first time since 2008 – have added impetus to the growing calls from high-profile Irish rugby figures for Declan Kidney to be axed after this campaign.
France, meanwhile, are anxious to end their longest Five/Six Nations winless streak (six games) in 55 years and Phillipe Saint-AndrÃ© is facing the very real prospect of eating his humble pie with a wooden spoon. Les Bleus have not gone seven games without a win in the tournament since 1927!
So to say the pressure is on would be an understatement. Thierry Dusautoir's comments that France had to win “no matter the cost” with his coach adding they would “happily sign for a 3-0 victory” are illustrations the desperation the visitors' camp.
While he grapples with never-ending injury woes, Kidney says he isn't thinking past this weekend but it's impossible to believe that the prospect of not having his contract renewed when it expires in a fortnight isn't playing on his mind. The fact that Ireland have won just one of their last 13 games against the French will not be helping him sleep either. His bizarre, and contradictory, statements this week suggest that the pressure is telling.
Both sets of fans have taken issue with their respective coach's choices at fly-half (though, with the exception of Steve Hansen, how many coaches that can say honestly they're in a different position?)
France were rather poor in their first two games with Fred Michalak driving the bus. They then produced their best hour of rugby when Francois Trinh-Duc started, only to fall apart when Michalak returned in the last half-hour at Twickenham. I'm not about to jump on the Michalak-bashing bandwagon because I reckon he IS a great player but even I'm amongst those wondering exactly what Trinh-Duc did merit being dropped. Similarly, Mathieu Bastareaud, who has beaten more tacklers than any other player in the tournament, despite only playing 20 minutes against Italy, also finds himself relegated to the woodwork. Likewise, I'm a fan of Florian Fritz, but after his subdued performances against in Rome and Paris, I don't really understand why he's starting in Dublin.
Ireland's fly-half issues have been of a very different nature and most critics have welcomed Kidney's courage in finally putting the country's most capped player out to pasture despite his first-choice pivot being ruled out by injury. But the way he handled the doubt surrounding Paddy Jackson's fitness for this weekend bordered on farcical, giving four different answers across three separate media briefings as to who will would wear the 10 jersey at Lansdowne Road. First he confirmed Jackson would start, but then said that a decision between who of Jackson and Ian Madigan would be given the nod would be made late on Tuesday. A few minutes later the call had been put back to Thursday and finally he announced that he knew the identity of his fly-half, but he wanted to speak to the two players first before making his choice public. Feeling the heat then are we, Declan?
Having passed a fitness test, Jackson will direct traffic for the men in green and Irish fans will pray that those on his outside will do a better job of converting opportunities after an unholy amount of possession and territory ended up being wasted at Murrayfield. An improvement by Jackson from the kicking tee would help too. Ireland have missed fewer tackles than any other side this season but they have failed to really fire on attack since those blistering first 43 minutes against Wales.
The last quarter has been France's biggest issue. They failed to up the tempo enough when trailing in Rome, there was a fateful lapse in defence in the dying minutes in Paris and the French bench turned the game in the wrong direction at Twickenham. The impact of the replacements, or lack thereof, is a real concern and PSA needs to consider the timing of his changes more carefully.
Considering the stakes, we shouldn't expect an open, free-running game. Margins at this level are incredibly small and, dramatic as it may sound, a tiny mistake on Saturday could cost someone their job.
Who would want to be an international coach? Not me.
Players to watch:
For Ireland: He's a favourite target for critics but Keith Earls has more clean breaks to his name (four) than any other player after three rounds. The Irish front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross will combine in the for the 20th time on Saturday, equalling Shane Byrne, John Hayes and Reggie Corrigan's record for Ireland. Healy can consider himself lucky to be available after getting off his suspension on a technicality. But the man under the microscope is Paddy Jackson. Given the drama of this week's events, another poor performance is set to make headlines.
For France: Full-back Yoann Huget has evaded 10 tackles so far in the tournament, better than any other player (bar Bastareaud) in the tournament . He is joined in an all-Toulouse back three by Vincent Clerc and Maxime MÃ©dard. Clerc has scored eight tries in ten Tests against Ireland, equalling the record for any country against Ireland. He is now France's third most capped winger (behind Philippe Saint-AndrÃ© and Christophe Dominici). MÃ©dard makes his first start in over a year and his first on the wing since 2011, when he scored a try against Ireland at this venue. Morgan Parra wins his 50th cap for France but it's only his second alongside Frederic Michalak, who has never lost against Ireland in seven Tests.
Head-to-head: Modern rugby often revolves around the battle between the loose forwards. Sean O'Brien has made more carries (44) than anyone else but second to him is France number eight Louis Picamoles (41). Jamie Heaslip is due a captain's innings after a poor campaign so far while Thierry Dusautoir is the championship's best tackler. The tussle between of the two relatively inexperienced second rows could be interesting. Donnacha Ryan has won more line-outs (14) than any other player after three rounds, whilst Yoann Maestri is joint-second with 13.
2012:17-17 draw at Stade de France, Paris
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