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France v Ireland - teams and prediction

ROUND ONE PREVIEW: The focus is firmly on the crucial opening match of the Six Nations – with two teams looking to put the disappointment of World Cup quarterfinal exits behind them.

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A strong-looking Ireland is bidding for unprecedented back-to-back Grand Slams.

However, they are facing a “war of attrition” when they travel to Marseille to face off against hosts France on Friday – a contest between the two most recent Grand Slam champions.

Europe’s showpiece competition has tended to throw up some real arm wrestles in recent years and the showdown at the Stade Vélodrome promises just that.

Both sides will contend that wounds have been sufficiently licked after their respective eliminations by South Africa (France, who lost 28-29) and New Zealand (with Ireland having gone down 24-29) in the last-eight phase.

Neither shows too many changes in personnel from the World Cup.

The Boks Office crew – Hanyani Shimange and Jean de Villiers, with guests Schalk Brits and Brad Barritt – could not move their attention past the face-off in Marseille.

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De Villiers, first out the blocks, said Friday’s tournament opener could also be the season decider.

“I think it [who wins the tournament] is dependent on the first game,” De Villiers said of the face-off in Marseille.

Barrett also said the loss of Antoine Dupont is less of a blow to France than the loss of Johnny Sexton to Ireland.

“Not only his playing capacity, but the intellectual property he brings to the team and making them function is the big loss.”

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Barritt added that starting flyhalf Jack Crowley and replacement Ciaran Frawley will not have the same ‘gravitas’ as Sexton.

De Villiers felt Crowley deserved his start, based on what he has done for Munster in pressure situations.

(Article continues below the Boks Office predictions …)

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There are two stand-out absentees.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton has retired, while his France counterpart Antoine Dupont is missing the Six Nations as he prepares for a potentially starring role in the Sevens at the Paris Olympics.

Jack Crowley and Maxime Lucu are the players who take their positions in two loaded teams.

Loaded enough that coaches Andy Farrell and France’s Fabien Galthié both opted for a split of six forwards and two backs on the replacements’ bench.

“We all know it’s going to be a war of attrition,” said Farrell.

“Set piece is premium in any game that you play against France, they’re big men, the size of their pack, and they’re very accurate as far as the set piece is concerned.”

Farrell added he thought it would also be a fast game.

“If you look at our bench, the power and pace that we’ve got within that pack to come on and finish the game strong is something that we think will work in our favour this time around.”

Veteran flank Peter O’Mahony skippers the side, with Farrell itching for Friday to roll around.

“The exciting thing for me is are we brave enough, have we got enough courage to go and do what we said we’re going to do?” said Farrell.

“If you want to be successful, if you want to try to be the best, then you’ve got to beat the best in places like this and the occasion doesn’t get much bigger.”

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‘Requirement to win’

Dupont’s Sevens absence aside, Galthié made four other changes from the France side that was edged by the Springboks, who went on to retain the Webb Ellis Cup at the World Cup the French hosted with aplomb.

That loss was a blot on Galthié’s otherwise largely unstained copybook, but the former France captain was in bullish form ahead of the Ireland clash.

“In four years, there hasn’t been a game without a requirement to win,” said Galthié, whose team’s next two home Six Nations games will be played in Lille and Lyon as the Stade de France is prepared for the Olympics.

“We’ve always heard the music in the background of requiring a win.

“The obstacles are the opponents. Before the World Cup, Ireland was world number one, now they’re world number two.

“We’re conscious of the run of games we have: South Africa, now Ireland, who also lost in the quarterfinals. Defeats are part of the journey, as are obstacles. We like it, pressure, requirements, it’s not a problem for us, we’re here for that.”

France won the Grand Slam in 2022 before they were pipped last season by Ireland and Friday’s match, with no disrespect to the four other competing nations, again has the feel of a title decider.

“It will be a great game to watch, there’s no doubt about that and the stadium, the atmosphere, it being the first game of the Six Nations after a World Cup, if you can’t get excited about that you’re in the wrong place,” said Farrell.

Players to watch

For France: The absence of Antoine Dupont will inevitably shine the spotlight on the No.9 position – Maxime Lucu the ‘lucky’ man having to deal with the added pressure at scrumhalf. He will link up with Bordeaux colleague Matthieu Jalibert (flyhalf) in the halfbacks. Bordeaux has other representatives in the dangerous backline – Damian Penaud – top try-scorer in each of the last two editions of the Championship – and Yoram Moefana on the wings. Up front Paul Willemse and Paul Gabrillagues form a new-look second row partnership, while François Cros steps into the starting line-up in the absence of the injured Anthony Jelonch.

For Ireland: The visitors were forced into changes of their own. Retired captain and talisman Johnny Sexton is replaced by Jack Crowley. Elsewhere, Joe McCarthy has been rewarded for his fine provincial form with a start in the second row in place of Leinster teammate James Ryan, while Robbie Henshaw gets the nod at outside centre with Garry Ringrose injured. Perhaps the most intriguing call is on the wing, with Mack Hansen injured, it is Calvin Nash who will start opposite James Lowe.

Head to head

Prediction

@rugby365com: France by six points

Fra v Ire prediction

Teams

France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Gael Fickou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Yoram Moefana; 10 Matthieu Jalibert, 9 Maxime Lucu; 8 Gregory Alldritt (captain), 7 Charles Ollivon, 6 Francois Cros; 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Paul Gabrillagues; 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Reda Wardi, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Cameron Woki, 20 Romain Taofifenua, 21 Paul Boudehent, 22 Nolann Le Garrec, 23 Louis Bielle-Biarrey.

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Calvin Nash, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Jack Crowley, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony (captain), 5 Tadhg Beirne, 4 Joe McCarthy, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter.
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 James Ryan, 20 Ryan Baird, 21 Jack Conan, 22 Conor Murray, 23 Ciaran Frawley.

Date: Friday, February 2
Venue: Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Kick-off: 21.00 (20.00 GMT; 20.00 UK and Ireland time)
Expected weather: Mainly clear, but cold. Temperature by kick-off will be about 8°C
Referee: Karl Dickson (England)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England) & Jordan Way (Australia)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)

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