Preview: Ireland v France

Date published: February 13 2015

The cavalry returns for Ireland as they seek to beat France for the first time in the new Aviva Stadium.

While Philippe Saint-André is still to beat Ireland as a coach, having never lost to them as a player, les Bleus arrive in Dublin having not lost in the Irish capital since 2009.

This weekend, France will have to beat what is more or less a full-strength Irish side on paper, on the pitch it remains to be seen just how match fit Jonny Sexton, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip really are.

As well as their replacements played last week in the 26-3 win over Italy, with Tommy O'Donnell particularly impressive, the presence of those three returning Lions, as well as Cian Healy on the bench, gives Joe Schmidt's side a more formidable look.

France, by contrast, have made just one change to the team that struggled past Scotland 15-8, Eddy Ben Arous replacing the injured Alexandre Menini.

It was a vote of confidence from Saint-André, and after all the criticism he has taken for chopping and changing, a little continuity might end up doing the team some good.

Last week les Bleus were under the cosh for most of the first half, struggling to cope with the speed on the outside of the Scottish three-quarters, but after the break they got their maul going, and monopolised possession with some ferocious work at the breakdown.

Those are two of the traditional strengths of the Irish, and the ruck battle will be key, as will which team gets the upper hand in the mauls.

A year ago Ireland picked up a rare win in Paris, but France produced one of their better performances in the tournament and could easily have won on another day.

Given their record in Ireland, they should go in with no fear, even if the Irish are rightly favourites for the game.

The winners of this one will likely be in what looks like a two-horse race for the Championship with England, the losers will be left with a lot of question marks, not least, how will they turn it around before the two sides meet again later this year at the World Cup.

Ones to Watch:

For Ireland: After three months on the sidelines the biggest question marks will be over how fit Jonny Sexton really can be. While the Irish camp are confident he's in peak physical shape, there is only so much work that you can do in training and in the gym. It seems unlikely that he'll make it through the full 80 minutes, but if he can survive an hour at about 90 percent of his usual performance, Joe Schmidt will be a happy man.

There are similar question marks over Sean O'Brien, a unique wrecking ball of a carrier when fully fit but that has been a rarity over the last 18 months. He hasn't played for Ireland since November 2013. If he can get up and running, the French back row will have a lot of tackling to do, the question is whether he will be bring that sort of dynamism after so long out. 

For France: He's very much flown under the radar but Guilhem Guirado will start his eighth game in France's last nine Tests in Dublin. Now at Toulon, the former Perpignan hooker has improved in the lineout, previously his biggest weakness. Around the park he's incredibly active and he racked up ten tackles and five carries in just 47 minutes last week. France have great depth at hooker with Benjamin Kayser and Dimitri Szarzewski both providing experienced alternatives, but Guirado is in the process of establishing himself for les Bleus.

Meanwhile a lot will once more come down to the performance of Camille Lopez at ten. Standing a little deeper than he does for Clermont, Lopez admitted his tactical kicking was not as good as it can be against the Scots. His kicking from the tee was better, with a post denying him a perfect six from six. Still, this will be a big test for him in only his second start away from home. His first? Well that was against the All Blacks at Eden Park.

Head-to-Head: When Ireland took to the field in Rome last week the biggest question mark was arguably over the selection of Mike Ross. The long-time Ireland tighthead had slipped to third in the pecking order at Leinster, but got the nod ahead of Martin Moore to face the Azzurri. Well his efforts against Matias Aguero vindicated that decision, as Ross dominated in the set-piece to given Ireland the platform they needed in the first half.

Up against him in Dublin will be a man making his first start for les Bleus, Eddy Ben Arous. The Racing-Métro prop made his debut back in 2013 against New Zealand but has found it hard to establish himself with the Parisian club. First choice for the big games now, his time seems to have come, and he impressed in the second half against the Scots. Around the park there are few more mobile and he acts as an extra back rower. The questions will come at scrum-time, where he has struggled in the Top 14, if he can at least hold his own against Ross in that sector, he'll be a major asset for France.

Recent results:

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
2006: France won 43-31 in Paris

Prediction: A lot will come down to how fit the returning Irish starters are, and Sexton in particular. France generally cause Ireland a lot of problems and were powerful if not incisive in the second half last week. Still if we're talking about which coach you trust more, there's no debate, so we've got to give Ireland the edge. Ireland by 5.

The teams:

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 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 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones

France: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Teddy Thomas, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Bernard Le Roux, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Pascal Papé, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Eddy Ben Arous.
Replacements: 16 Benjamin Kayser, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Vincent Debaty, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Morgan Parra, 22 Rémi Talès, 23 Rémi Lamerat.

Date: Saturday, February 14
Kick-off: 17:00 local
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
AR1: Nigel Owens (Wales)
AR2: Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

By Paul Eddison