After a hard fought, scrappy win in Rome, Ireland are back to home turf for a face off against one of the traditional superpowers France in the Aviva on Sunday. But which France are going to turn up? And for that matter, which Ireland? PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy looks at what is a crucial game for two sides that are desperate to hit top form with the Rugby World Cup only two competitive games away!
- IRE – Villiers School, Limerick – 09:45-14:00, Sat 31st March 2019
- IRE – Wilson’s Hospital School, Westmeath – 09:45-14:00, Sat 31st March 2019
- UK – Pangbourne College, Reading – 09:45-14:00, Sat 31st March 2019
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So, we’re back where it all started against England but where exactly do we stand? That’s the million euro question with two rounds of the 6 Nations left to play and a recovery mission well and truly needed after the stuttering performances that have followed that comprehensive opening day defeat. The great news, which won’t be lost on anyone, least of all Joe, his staff and the squad themselves, is that these next two games are going to an ideal dry run for the knockout stages of a World Cup, especially if the Welsh Grand Slam bid survives it’s road trip to Murrayfield.
But first, this weekend and we welcome a French team that, for one round of games at least, seem to have sorted out some of the on (and maybe off) field issues that manifested themselves in their 2nd half meltdown versus Wales and the complete car crash that was their hammering away to England. With their backs against the wall and nothing to lose, Jacques Brunel and his staff trusted youth, giving them the responsibility to run the game against Scotland. Et viola! The team seemed to rediscover itself, although given the weakened team and really disappointing performance by Gregor Townsend’s men, you’d have to take the facile nature of the winning margin with a Parisien chef’s sized pinch of salt. That said, there’s no doubt that they travel to Dublin in a much better headspace and with confidence, something that always carries an extra edge of threat in a French side.
In terms of personnel and potential match winners, it’s pretty clear that Romain Ntamack is a proper talent and unlike many French outhalves, he can have an impact on a game not just with his flare but by controlling it tactically. He was a step above the rest in the Under 20’s World Cup win back in 2018 and his progression this season with Toulouse has been exceptional. In Dupont at scrum half, he has a similarly skillful and confident young partner crime, and it’s pretty clear that Ireland need to unsettle these two in order to rattle the French gameplan. The French side is, on paper at least, a really potent blend of experience in Huget, Picamoles, Basteraud, Guirado and even Fickou, with a spattering of exceptional youngsters. There’s very little ryhme or reason to French team selection at times (the team back three selection for Twickenham…) BUT they have an unchanged team for the first time in 18 months and that’s telling.
And on to the home side. It’s a statement of the obvious but Ireland are clearly still finding their feet a little after that confidence sapping defeat to the English. The Rome performance was at best a continuation of the level seen in Murrayfield and that was largely unexpected, even with the changed starting lining up. Despite a hugely un-Ireland like raft of unforced errors, we got out of jail a bit with a piece of Joey Carbery magic and the players will have been glad to get back to Carton House for another stint to try to mend the bodies and more importantly, rediscover the focus and hunger of 2018. Ireland may be in a tough place this Championship but sometimes trying harder can only make things worse.
In terms of this weekend, the return of those rested or injured front liners who missed Rome is absolutely crucial. Starting with the Captain, Rory Best’s leadership will be instrumental this weekend. He will also bring an accuracy that was missing at lineout time in Rome, something that seems to have really cost Sean Cronin in terms of selector confidence. Ireland’s lineout is THE platform that serves as the launch pad for the majority of power plays and for that reason, it needs to function at it’s best this weekend.
In the back row, CJ Stander coming back in will freshen up the group and bring back an energy that was slightly lacking in Italy, while Josh van der Flier should bring his usual all-round footballing skills to bear. It is harsh for Sean O’Brien to lose out altogether this week but it’s a reflection of the depth that Joe has at his disposal and I wouldn’t assume that it’s the last that we’ll see of the Tullow man this 6 Nations.
It’s been discussed to death but the Murray and Sexton axis is the main area that needs to regain its confidence and form. I think these two have suffered the most from the English defeat in terms of criticism and harsh as that may seem given their service and excellence for so long, it is reflective of the standards that they’ve set for themselves. The reality is that form is temporary but class is permanent and I fully expect to see things clicking again with them as a pairing sooner rather than later.
So much of the game at the very top level comes down to honesty, clarity and confidence. On that front, the openness with which Rob Kearney spoke to the press this week was brilliant to see. That in itself would have gone a long way to lifting the nagging doubts within the group. To be mentally strong enough to address the issues so openly shows how strong this group is individually with its leaders and collectively.
In terms of the game itself, I think given the opposition and the run in to the game, I’d expect Ireland’s game management and processes to be really sharp on Sunday. I’d be really surprised if their accuracy isn’t on a completely different level to where its been for the last 3 games. They’ll look to starve the French of possession and space, sapping the strength and explosiveness of the opposition pack. With Garry Ringrose back outside Bundee Aki, we can expect to see a big racheting up of our line speed and defensive power game, with this putting massive pressure on the young French half backs. Joe and Johnny Sexton will no doubt have dusted off another one or two of their strike moves to unlock a French defence that can be got at with some clever running lines and deception. The French will thrive on any loose kicking or handling but with a clear weather forecast for Sunday, you’d have to be hopeful, if not confident, that their chances to profit on Irish errors will be very limited.
This game will set the tone for the next 8 days and let’s not be surprised if we have another 6 Nations title at the end of it. Great teams know how to win ugly. Ask the All Blacks. That 2011 Rugby Cup Final wasn’t exactly a Tour de Force was it?
Prediction: Ireland by 9 points
See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2019 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here