Preview: Ireland v France

Date published: February 24 2017

There will be plenty at stake when Ireland and France resume hostilities in what promises to be an enthralling Test in Dublin on Saturday.

After two rounds of matches both sides have already suffered a loss and know that another defeat will ruin their chances of winning the championship. So, with the stakes being so high, something’s got to give this weekend.

Ireland were slow out of the blocks and were on the receiving end of a 27-22 slip-up against Scotland in their opener but were soon back to their winning ways and claimed a 63-10 win over Italy in their next match in Rome.

That result against the Azzurri was a momentous one as it was Ireland’s biggest ever victory and the most points they have ever scored in a Championship fixture since they contested the inaugural event in 1883.

That fixture was a special one for CJ Stander who made history when he became the first forward to score a Six Nations hat-trick. The big news from the Irish camp is the return to action of first-choice fly-half Jonathan Sexton after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with a calf injury.

The Leinsterman resumes his half-back partnership with Conor Murray, who was back to his best against Italy, and if the duo get good front-foot ball from their forwards then it should be a tough assignment for the visitors.

France under their head coach Guy Novès are a side heading in the right direction as they have made great strides under the guidance of the former Toulouse boss.

They were very unlucky to lose their tournament opener to England (19-16) at Twickenham but continued to impress in their next match and bounced back with a 22-16 win over Scotland in Paris.

The form of their forwards in those matches were particularly impressive with Louis Picamoles and Kévin Gourdon combining brilliantly in the back row while Sébastien Vahaamahina has also caught the eye with solid showings in the tight exchanges.

Another player who has done well is fly-half Camille Lopez, both as his team’s chief playmaker and also impressed with accurate goalkicking.

Ireland boss Joe Schmidt knows his side will have to be at their best and expects a tough battle.

“They certainly appear to have the right mix and the right players and I know talking to Guy last year that they were putting foundations in that sound quite promising,” he said.

“I just hope that doesn’t come to fruition on Saturday.”

But despite showing improvement under Novès, France will be desperate for a win as they have lost their last four away games in the tournament since beating Italy 29-0 in Rome in Round 4 in 2015.

Les Bleus have recorded only one Championship victory over Ireland in Dublin since 2007; 25-22 in 2011.

But, France’s 10-9 triumph over Ireland in last season’s Six Nations ended a five-match winless run against the men from the Emerald Isle, their worst sequence against the men in green since the 1920s.

Players to Watch

For Ireland: He’s back! Although Paddy Jackson has done well as his deputy, the return of Johnny Sexton is a tremendous boost for Ireland. When on song, Sexton is arguably the best number ten in Europe and despite being sidelined for five weeks through injury, the 31-year-old will be expected to be at his best this weekend.

With a British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand on the horizon Sexton will be determined to hit the ground running in this clash.

For France: France’s impressive form is largely down to the improvement in their forwards and no one epitomises this more than Louis Picamoles, who was impressive in their previous matches against England and Scotland.

His performance at Twickenham was spectacular and he was rightly named man of the match despite finishing on the losing side. If he gathers momentum, it will take a special defensive effort from Ireland to keep him in check.

Head-to-head: The battle of the two captains will have a huge bearing on this Test’s result. While both Rory Best and Guilhem Guirado will be the forefront of their respective teams’ forward charge, their leadership will also be crucial especially their decision making under pressure which could prove to be the difference between winning and losing this Test.

Previous results:

2016: France won 10-9 in Paris
2015: Ireland won 24-9 in Cardiff (RWC)
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

Prediction: Although France have shown great improvement, it will be difficult to get the better of Ireland in their own backyard. Ireland to win by six points!

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Andrew Trimble

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Noa Nakaitaci, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Bernard le Roux, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julian Le Devedec, 20 Charles Ollivon, 21 Maxime Machenaud, 22 Henry Chavancy, 23 Djibril Camara

Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 16:50 GMT
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Luke Pearce (England)
TMO: George Ayoub (Australia)

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