Preview: Ireland v France
SIX NATIONS ROUND FOUR: Ireland have been finding life tough since New Zealand coach Steve Hansen anointed them as the best team in the world and face a “massive match” against France on Sunday Irish.
Indeed Hansen – who handed them that poisoned chalice when the Irish beat his world champions last November in a historic home Test win – has been at it again suggesting that Joe Schmidt and his players have not handled being the hunted nearly as well as they did when they were the hunters.
Ward – regarded as one of Ireland’s finest ever fly-halves – concurs saying the opening Six Nations loss to England “knocked the wind out of our sails”.
Two subsequent workmanlike away wins over Scotland and Italy – Schmidt admits the Irish have lacked cohesion – righted the ship a bit but a huge amount is riding on Sunday’s game at Lansdowne Road.
The Irish realistically need to win to maintain their outside hopes of retaining the title against a French side that arrives with their confidence boosted following a much-needed victory over Scotland last time out.
“This is a massive game in every way,” Irish great Tony Ward told AFP.
“The French side are showing signs of revival, have great half-backs [flyhalf Romain Ntamack and scrumhalf Antoine Dupont] though I am not sure about their centres and the same starting XV [the first time since Jacques Brunel took over in December 2017] which is an achievement of its own.
“It is a huge game and if Ireland win against a French side on the rise and with a little bit of substance to it makes us look as if we are on our way back to the form of last November.”
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Ward, who was the inaugural European Player of the Year back in 1979, believes part of the problem has been the ever-worsening mood of present flyhalf and world player of the year Johnny Sexton.
This boiled over when 33-year-old Sexton showed his displeasure when he exited late in the match against Italy – he has put it down to frustration.
Ward, though, is having none of that.
“I like Johnny Sexton but it makes me really angry to see him throwing tantrums it is detrimental to morale in the squad,” said Ward.
“He explains it by saying this is the way I am but that is not good enough
“Leaders are meant to inspire not alienate.
“If I was a player in the squad I would not want him as a team leader.”
Ward, who is director of rugby at St Gerard’s School near Dublin, believes Ireland need Sexton and his half-back partner Conor Murray to return to the level of form they showed last year – the latter has not looked his old self since returning from a neck injury.
“I am a huge Murray fan but both of them collectively and individually are not playing well,” said the 64-year-old.
“Last year they were on a par with the All Blacks pair and made a world of difference to the rest of the team who were fired up and sparked by them.
“However they have not been firing on all cylinders this year.”
Ward, who made one memorable appearance for the British & Irish Lions scoring 18 points against South Africa in 1980, says Schmidt is Ireland’s greatest ever coach – he also envies the 53-year-old New Zealander’s “Peter Pan” boyish looks – but feels his announcement he is leaving after the World Cup this year has also impacted.
“It affects the psyche of the squad automatically,” said Ward.
“You go from the simple psychology of we are all in this together to the boys knowing that come the end of the World Cup campaign he will be on the first bus out.
“I wish he was not going!!”
Players to watch:
For Ireland: It is all change for Ireland, as they return to the tried and trusted after the experiment up front against Italy. The front row reunites Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong either side of skipper Rory Best, James Ryan and Iain Henderson return to the second row and Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander return alongside Peter O’Mahony in the back row. The backline is largely unchanged from the one that won in Rome, try-scorers Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale remain on the wing but Garry Ringrose comes into midfield in place of Chris Farrell.
For France: Jacques Brunel’s entire matchday 23 is unchanged for the first time in his tenure. That means Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont remain as the fresh-faced half-back pairing while the third Toulousain in the back three, Thomas Ramos, will be keen to find his goal-kicking boots in Dublin.
Head to head: Conor Murray versus Antoine Dupont. The scrumhalf match-up will make for fascinating watching. It is a contrast in styles, the master manager Conor Murray who looks to be returning to some of his best form after some injury struggles against the livewire Antoine Dupont. Dupont has been one of the finds of this year’s Championship for Les Bleus and starts for the second game in a row. But Murray has been there and done it all before, he’s scored twice against France before in his international career including in this fixture back in 2017.
2018: Ireland won 15-13, Paris
2017: Ireland won 19-9, Dublin
2016: France won 10-9, Paris
2015: Ireland won 24-9, Cardiff (World Cup pool match)
2015: Ireland won 18-11, Dublin
2014: Ireland won 22-20, Paris
2013: Ireland and France drew 13-all, Dublin
2012: Ireland and France drew 17-all, Paris
2011: France won 26-22, Dublin
2011: France won 19-12, Bordeaux
Prediction: France has not won in Dublin since 2011. Ireland has only scored one try in the last four meetings between the two teams. Defending champions Ireland have scored nine tries, one every 26.7 minutes, while France has dotted down seven times (one every 34.3 minutes). Jacques Brunel’s side will need to tighten up at the back if they are to stand a chance, however, having conceded 10 tries so far to leave them second from bottom in those standings. This may be the match where we finally see Ireland click into gear and win by 12 points or more.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Iain Henderson, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 David Kilcoyne, 18 John Ryan, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Jack Conan, 21 John Cooney, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Jordan Larmour.
France: 15 Thomas Ramos, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Arthur Iturria, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Félix Lambey, 3 Demba Bamba, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Dorian Aldegheri, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Gregory Alldritt, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Anthony Belleau, 23 Maxime Médard.
Date: Sunday, March 10
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15.00 (15.00 GMT, 16.00 France time)
Expected weather: Variable cloudiness; a couple of showers, windy and chilly. High of 7°C and a low of 1°C
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Angus Gardner (Australia), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Sources: Agence France-Presse & @SixNationsRugby