France v Ireland: Prediction and Teams
SIX NATIONS, ROUND FIVE: Ireland’s Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have been the benchmark for many as the standout halfback partnership in Test rugby over the last decade but on Saturday they will face a challenge to that mantle as they come up against the young pretenders of France – Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
Sexton and Murray will start at flyhalf and scrumhalf respectively for the 61st time at the Stade de France – 63rd if you include two Tests for the British and Irish Lions – whilst for Toulouse duo Dupont and Ntamack, it will be just their 11th pairing.
Whoever comes out on top between the grizzled, battle-hardened Irish duo and the dynamic, raw talent of the Frenchmen may well determine the destination of the match and the Six Nations title.
Ireland will be crowned champions if they win away to France with a bonus-point, achieved by scoring four or more tries.
With the Stade de France match the last of the day’s three fixtures, both the Irish and the French will kick-off knowing exactly what they need to do.
Sexton, now 35, and Murray, four years his junior, first lined up together against the USA in the 2011 World Cup.
They went on to become the puppet-masters of the team that flourished under Joe Schmidt, winning three Six Nations titles including the 2018 Grand Slam.
There was also an historic first win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 where Murray was sublime – he missed a second win over the All Blacks in Dublin two years ago through injury.
Schmidt stepped down after last year’s World Cup, but the veteran halfbacks continue to pull the strings under new coach Andy Farrell.
“They are world-class,” was France wing Vincent Rattez’s appraisal this week.
For Ntamack, Sexton and Murray, the king of the box-kick, are the heartbeat of the Irish side.
“They are the two key players,” said the 21-year-old.
“We have focussed on them since the beginning of the week.
“We are aware that the game is directed by them and must be extremely vigilant.”
Form and fitness
Not all, though, is rosy in the Irish garden as Sexton’s fitness is of increasing concern and question marks hover over the form of Murray, the player once described by Ronan O’Gara as “the Federer” of the Irish game.
Murray has seen off the challenge of Ulster’s John Cooney, whose form has deserted him, but Leinster’s New Zealand-born scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park is a potential threat.
Sexton, described by O’Gara as “insanely competitive and driven”, may have increasingly creaking limbs but he provokes nothing but admiration from Ntamack.
“He is a role model for me but not just me but others too,” the Toulouse star said this week.
“He is world-class, perhaps the best flyhalf of the past 10 years.
“I cannot allow myself simply to watch him and let him play, otherwise things will become very difficult for us.”
The admiration does not just run one way.
Sexton purrs over Dupont and Ntamack whilst Murray is impressed by the understanding they have built up on the pitch.
He says one of the reasons Fabien Galthie has turned the French into a title contender so quickly since he took over after last year’s World Cup is that he has stuck with the same halfback combination.
This will be the sixth match in succession that they are paired together.
“Firstly, they’re two individually brilliant players and that’s a good starting point,” said Murray.
“But I think their relationship seems to have grown over the last while.
“They read each other really well. You can see there is that understanding of what the nine is thinking and the 10 reacts or even the other way around.”
For Murray too, 23-year-old Dupont is the epitome of the old French scrumhalves – the generals – he used to watch growing up.
“Yeah, there is an appreciation on my side for the French scrumhalves and the way they play the game,” said Murray.
“They’re little generals, they seem to run the show a little bit more than the 10 in France.
“Some French scrumhalves are quite laid back but Dupont at the moment, and [Toulon’s] Baptiste Serin as well who is playing some really great stuff, are the real deal.”
Players to watch
For France: In the backline, Virimi Vakatawa is a huge figure in the midfield and he will keep the Irish defenders busy, which could open up space for the outside backs. Romain Ntamack is a young talented flyhalf with all the x-factor to tear the Irish apart out wide. in the pack, captain and loose forward Charles Ollivon leads by example on the field, while the South African-born lock pairing of Paul Willemse and Bernard Le Roux provides the French with power.
For Ireland: Flyhalf Johnny Sexton is a proven match-winner, and he will be called upon to keep the French under pressure. His halfback partner, Conor Murray, will be another key figure when it comes to decision-making around the park. In the pack, Will Connors and Caelan Doris gave the Italians penalty of problems at the breakdown and they will be out to do the same this weekend.
Head to Head
Look no further than the battle between the two halfback partnerships. Johnny Sexton and Connor Murray have all the experience in the world. However, they are coming up against the talented Romain Ntamack and Antoine Dupont. The French duo play an exciting brand of rugby and they could run their opponents off their feet on Saturday.
@rugby365com: France by five points.
France: 15 Anthony Bouthier, 14 Vincent Rattez, 13 Virimi Vakatawa, 12 Arthur Vincent, 11 Gael Fickou, 10 Romain Ntamack, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Gregory Alldritt, 7 Charles Ollivon (captain), 6 Francois Cros, 5 Paul Willemse, 4 Bernard Le Roux, 3 Mohamed Haouas, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Cyril Baille.
Replacements: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Jean-Baptiste Gros, 18 Demba Bamba, 19 Romain Taofifenua, 20 Dylan Cretin, 21 Baptiste Serin, 22 Arthur Retitere, 23 Thomas Ramos.
Ireland: 15 Jacob Stockdale, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Hugo Keenan, 10 Johnny Sexton (captain), 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Will Connors, 6 Caelan Doris, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Andrew Porter, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Chris Farrell.
Date: Saturday, October 31
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Kick-off: 21.05 (20.05 UK & Ireland time; 20.05 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be cloudy with chances of occasional rain. It will be around 14°C with 15 to 25 km/h winds.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Matthew Carley (England), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Luke Pearce (England)
AFP & @rugby365com