TODAY’S TEAM SELECTION offered up no major surprises as Peter O’Mahony resumed his place in the back row and Iain Henderson dropped to the bench.
Paddy Jackson will feel hard done by and rightfully so. He did nothing wrong when called upon. Ian Madigan’s problem was always his lack of game time at out-half and, once he got that with Leinster, he was always going to end up on the bench. He has more to offer in terms of a change in Ireland’s playing style when he comes on. He plays on the gainline and is a confident, off-the-cuff operator.
Jonathan Sexton has similar qualities but Madigan’s ability to make a play no-one is expecting could prove handy if we are chasing the game. Saying that, Madigan has proved he can close out games and play tactically so Schmidt should be happy to call on him in the final quarter.
Joe Schmidt will have covered every eventuality and play that France might run but I am sure he was happy to have lads like Madigan and Simon Zebo running attacking lines against his squad out at Carton House this week. They would be the closest players we have to that instinctive, French style of rugby. To be able to call on lads like Donnacha Ryan, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls for training runs is remarkable. Last year was a freak one for injuries but now we have Lions wingers and international-class second rows not making matchday squads but in for training drills. It’s a remarkable show of squad strength.
For all of Ireland’s preparations and planning, this should be the first game of the championship that is not decided by how they play. The results have all depended on how they have played. They got themselves into position to win at Twickenham but some players started to slip in the closing stages. France, on the other hand, have been bad for the entire Six Nations. This is the first time they have been poor throughout an entire championship but they have the skill to turn it around and have a crazy game.
France have named a stronger side than the one that snuck over the line against Scotland. In Louis Picamoles, they have one of the best players in the northern hemisphere if not the world. Wesley Fofana missing out is a big break for Ireland as Gael Fickou is unproven and neither Brian O’Driscoll or Gordon D’Arcy will let Mathieu Bastareaud away with much. There is a change at hooker and Dimitri Szarzewski can’t do any worse than Brice Mach and Guilhem Guirado managed last week. He’s a good line-out operator and will add some strength to an area that was previously lacking in good hair.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Philippe Saint-Andre will have his team fired up and the message may well be that a win is needed or heads will roll. He has opted against recalling Morgan Parra at scrum-half in favour of Maxime Machenaud. Any other sane person would have Parra back in a heartbeat. It is teed up for France to have one of their cracking, unstoppable games but, even if they do, I believe Ireland will handle them and get the win.
There has been talk of France sitting back and playing a counter-attacking game. Ireland should welcome that and trust in their ability to see them home. I have full confidence in the fitness of the Irish players. It takes a huge effort to defend — make one tackle and get up for another — than to attack. If France do play on the hop and wait for us to falter, we have the scramble defence to get back and hold them off.
There was a feeling in the past of ‘Ah Jesus, France in Paris for our last game’. That is no longer the case and the feeling in the Irish camp is different. Eight of the Irish players [three starters - Chris Henry, Devin Toner and Dave Kearney] have never played a Test match in Paris before. That, in the past, may have been a bad thing. This time around it means a lot of lads don’t have that stigma of defeat; they are used to winning games and Stade de France won’t faze them.
I played France, in Paris, in 2004 and met them twice in Dublin. In my time, we were never able to get the result at Stade de France despite the great players we had to choose from. They were always capable of getting on a roll and scoring two or three tries — really getting that scoreboard rocking — in the space of 10, 15 hectic minutes. They have created very little this year but have taken every opportunity presented to them. If France get a quick score, Ireland need to regain their composure quickly.
The French crowd can be great when the game is swinging their way but equally, if Les Bleus falter, quick to turn. Ireland will need to strike hard and strike first. Their chances will come.
I genuinely believe Ireland have enough players with no history and no fear of going to Paris. They are the form team of the Six Nations and a very wily coach that will do everything to get a championship in the bag. A win of any description will do it. a one point win would be absolutely huge.
@shanebyrneoffic played hooker for Leinster and Saracens, won 45 Test caps for Ireland between 2001 and 2005 and 4 Test appearances with The British & Irish Lions.