Favourites lock horns in Paris
February 10, 2010
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll rallies his troops during their opening Championship victory against Italy © Getty Images
Movie buffs awaiting the remake of the Ray Harryhausen fantasy epic Clash of the Titans can get a sneak preview this weekend with two of Europe's rugby heavyweights set to go head-to-head in the Six Nations.
France entertain Ireland at the Stade de France in Paris in a mouth-watering encounter that is sure to go a long way to deciding the destiny of this year's Championship. And there is no danger of the contest taking on a stop-motion feel with a host of fascinating individual match-ups across the field.
The Irish kicked off the defence of their Grand Slam with a forgettable display against Italy in Dublin that promised so much more than was delivered to an expectant Croke Park crowd. Declan Kidney's side offered only brief glimpses of their best with No.8 Jamie Heaslip and scrum-half Tomas O'Leary crossing for notable tries. They failed to maintain that momentum and the game descended into a turgid affair after the break that will have had the masses heading for the exits early had they not had to dig so deep for the privilege of witnessing the dour affair.
Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll noted last week that a Championship cannot be won in the opening weeks but can often be lost so they will accept the win and move on - quickly. But a similar rusty and error-strewn showing at the Stade de France will serve as a near fatal blow to their hopes of back-to-back glory and bring an end of their 12-game unbeaten run.
In contrast, France produced the most polished performance of the opening weekend with a clinical demolition of Scotland at Murrayfield, but any immediate joy will have been tempered by their failure to make more of their physical dominance. Thankfully for Marc Lievremont's side, the Six Nations remains a bonus-point-free zone but if the Championship goes the distance as many have predicted then he may regret his side not making hay while the sun shined in Edinburgh.
The opening round of action fell some way short of expectation and if one game is going to silence the critics and make Australia, New Zealand and South Africa sit up and take notice it is this game. Ireland, France and Scotland were the only sides to beat one of the southern hemisphere giants last year, with Les Bleus doing it home and away, and within their ranks they both have truly world class players.
O'Driscoll continues to set the standard in the north but his meeting with opposite number Mathieu Bastareaud is shaping up as a titantic tussle. O'Driscoll may have lost some of the zip that laced his early international career but he is still widely regarded as the best defender in the game and he will need to draw on that strength and some to shackle the 6ft and 17st Bastareaud. But to suggest the 21-year-old is a solely a power player would do him a disservice with pace a key part of his game. Two tries against the Scots saw him return to the headlines for all the right reasons after what could have been a career-ending diplomatic row last year and another high-profile stage offers him the chance to continue his rehabilitation.
Ireland's Jamie Heaslip will no doubt relish another chance to test himself against the best - with France's in-form Imanol Harinordoquy providing the opposition on this occasion. It was in the corresponding fixture last year that the Leinster star announced his arrival as a truly world-class forward and his star has continued to rise ever since to the point where excellence is no longer the exception but the norm.
When it comes to consistency, few can rival veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara's ability to deliver week in, week out. His disastrous Lions cameo now cast to the history books, the Munster No.10 has returned to what he does best. For those who saw Jonathan Sexton's emergence in the autumn as a sign that O'Gara's days were numbered, the 32-year-old took the opportunity offered by Sexton's injury last week to offer a reminder of his own accomplished game. He will face a sterner test in Paris but the shirt appears his to lose.
Munster's Keith Earls has been thrust into the mix, perhaps cast as Pegasus, in the hope of providing the spark that was sorely missing last weekend while dynamic blindside Stephen Ferris provided a timely boost with his return to fitness. The brains trust provided by the experience of O'Driscoll, O'Gara and tight-head John Hayes - all of whom are closing in on a century of Ireland caps - will also be invaluable as target their first win in the French capital since 2000 when a 21-year-old O'Driscoll exploded onto the international stage with a hat-trick of tries.
France coach Marc Lievremont may have surprised some by opting to retain the vast majority of a winning side given his reputation for rotation but only injuries have prevented him from sending out the same side that beat the Scots. Fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc hangs on the No.10 shirt and will once again partner Morgan Parra but they will be expected to have a greater say on proceedings than they did in the opener. If the French are to rediscover a ruthless streak then their halfbacks must shoulder much of the responsibility because and Ireland side that possesses a more attacking threat than the Scots will not be as forgiving as their celtic rivals. Vincent Clerc and Alexis Palisson come in for Aurelien Rougerie and Benjamin Fall out wide to ensure the French retain an attacking feel on paper and maybe they will be the ones given the chance to stretch their wings.
With two unbeaten records on the line the narrative is set to take a decisive twist on Saturday - let's just hope the teams deliver a spectacle more Aphrodite than Medusa.
France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); V Clerc (Toulouse), M Bastareaud (Stade Francais), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), A Palisson (Brive); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont); T Domingo (Clermont), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), L Nallet (Racing Metro), P Pape (Stade Francais), T Dusautoir (Toulouse), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz).
Replacements : D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), S Marconnet (Stade Francais), J Pierre (Clermont), J Bonnaire (Clermont), D Marty (Perpignan), F Michalack (Toulouse), J Malzieu (Clermont).
Ireland: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Brian O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), Gordon D'Arcy (Leinster), Keith Earls (Munster); Ronan O'Gara (Munster), Tomas O'Leary (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Jerry Flannery (Munster), John Hayes (Munster), Leo Cullen (Leinster), Paul O'Connell (Munster), Stephen Ferris (Ulster), David Wallace (Munster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster)
Replacements: Rory Best (Ulster), Tom Court (Ulster), Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Sean O'Brien (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Paddy Wallace (Ulster)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Nigel Owens (Wales), Stuart Terheege (England)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
While the Super Rugby season enters the all-important knockout phase, elsewhere pre-season training never looked so enjoyable. We round-up the best snaps in our Week in Pictures
"Our scrums and lineouts are sometimes not that good but our men are very brave." Ken Borland finds that rugby is on the rise in Senegal
Laurie Fisher talks about the Brumbies and Gloucester, and provides revealing thoughts on the player involvement during the glory days in Canberra
"Pre-season is about the only time watching someone puke is hilarious to everyone, apart from the guy bent double." Tom May's latest column