After three weeks acclimatizing to the RWC, Ireland face into their tournament defining fixture. A match against perennial abrasive, hard to read France awaits at the cauldron of Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the game and sees where this defining Pool D contest will be decided.
Both sides come into the contest with questions to answer. Ireland started the tournament with an emphatic victory over Canada and showed Ireland’s ruthless nature by putting Canada to the sword with four tries in the opening period, the majority of the damage done in a ten minute spell when Jamie Cudmore was sent to the sin bin. Romania were next for Joe Schmidt’s men and they won with minimum fuss with the back three of Earls, Zebo and Bowe catching the eye. If Ireland were starting to lose the run of themselves, then the reality check was provided last weekend. Italy’s abrasive gritty performance gave Ireland a timely reminder that performance is key. Ireland under performed in all facets of play, the pack struggled to gain any sort of supremacy while the back line were starved of quality go forward ball. If Peter O’Mahoney had not foiled Furno at the corner, it would have being interesting to see how Ireland would have reacted.
France have being Jekyll and Hyde in this tournament so far. Lethargic periods of France play in all their tournament games so far has being dossed with sprinkles of French quality; effective clear-out work at ruck time, strong set piece which has allowed the likes of Bastareaud and Fofana to hit the game line with speed and purpose. Saint Andre like Joe Schmidt has given all his squad game minutes but unlike Ireland, you do not get the sense that Saint Andre knows his best fifteen. This is particularly evident in the out-half selection this weekend. Michalak gets the nod over Morgan Parra – unpredictability wins over consistency in selection. Michalak on his day can beat any team on own courtesy of game management awareness but can as easly cost his side dear (i.e. erratic play calls, inconsistent penalty kicking). He is an enigma. Ireland will hope that he has an off day.
Ireland’s first fifteen selection for the most part reads along with familiar lines. The interesting calls were the inclusion of Devin Toner and Keith Earls. Toner’s form against France in 6N action was key to this selection. The Leinster second row’s ability to win lineout ball and control restarts were pivotal points in his inclusion. Ian Henderson will be disappointed with his omission but his contribution off the bench with thirty minutes to go will be crucial in terms of ball carrying and tackle count. The Keith Earls selection now makes sense when news filtered through this morning that Jared Payne’s tournament is now over. Earls has being entrusted to create attacking opportunities at thirteen. The question is whether Earls will even get any quality ball against France. Italy last weekend prevented Ireland at the breakdown getting early ball. France will look to do the same. Earls tackling ability has improved this season, will not let the team down. Luke Fitzgerald is a quality option to come in to make the impact off the bench. I sense the pivotal battles will not be focused in the three quarters. Mike Ross will have to go the full eighty minutes. The thought of Nathan White coming on the park quite frankly scares me in terms of set piece and open play. France have named a team who will try to batter Ireland’s pack to submission with power and increased pace in the front five. Arous, Slimani are effective scrum operators but their real asset is their pace with ball in hand around the fringes. Guirado aids to this dynamic front row unit but is his lineout skill set sufficient to provide France with the required platform with the likes of Toner and O’Connell around? France’s key line is the back row. Dusaitour, Chouly and Picamoles strike an imposing unit. The breakdown area will be huge on Sunday and this line have proven year in year out that they will be up for the battle. Their sheer ability to make yards after being tackled will mean good go forward ball for Tillous-Borde and Michalak to launch swift France attacks. Ireland cannot kick aimlessly as the likes of Speeding and Nakaitici will relish the opportunity to run with ball in hand with interest. Ireland’s key strength will be their ability to execute game management scenarios at certain times. This is in stark contrast to the unpredictability of Michalak who at times can be found wanting in doing the right thing at the right time.
The key question is which pack will be dominant on the day? Ireland’s lineout has functioned well but the scrum has struggled to gain any supremacy particularly evident in the Italian performance. France have named a front row who are dynamic ball carriers but their scrum is diminished slightly when you compare that to the likes of Mas and Debaty in reserve. This is where Ireland could get a foothold in the contest particularly in the first fifty minutes of this contest. With minimal back line play, this crunch tie is going to be decided in the trenches. Scrum infringements will be met with celebratory roars by both set of supporters like they won the actual tournament. The penalty kicking then comes into focus. Which penalty kicker will hold their nerve the most? Sexton’s penalty kicking from less than 30 meters is strong but outside 30 meters could be problematic. Michalak to be honest — all depends what side of the bed he gets out of. Parra will be lights out on the penalty kicks as well so for Ireland to win, Sexton will be a pivotal figure. I am not expecting much in back line play. Yes, Bastareaud is a beast but Ireland will have schemes to nullify his threat with fast defensive lines. This game is a battle of the packs. This is really too close too comfort, think Ireland to edge it purely because they have built up a sufficient lead early doors in the contest. The finger nails will be bitten to the core. France will finish the game like a thoroughbred running strongly to the finishing line, their bench will impact the contest but will it be too late? Two nations hold its breathe.