Irish ready to erase Croke Park heartache
February 5, 2009
France celebrate breaking Ireland's hearts at Croke Park in 2007 © Getty Images
Ireland and France go head-to-head at Croke Park on Saturday in a clash that is set to go a long way to defining both sides' Championship destiny.
According to many, these two sides represent the main obstacle to Wales repeating their Six Nations triumph of 12 months ago but both have plenty to prove if they are to live up to that potential.
As the more settled side and with home advantage, Ireland look the more likely to open their account with a notable victory but only a fool would write France off in any scenario - just ask anyone present at Croke Park two years ago when Les Bleus snatched a last-gasp victory at Ireland's temporary home.
That victory, thanks to a Vincent Clerc try in the dying moments of the game, was a significant psychological blow that still carries some weight. Ireland have failed to make Croke Park into an inhospitable fortress and it could be argued that despite its superior size it is not as imposing as Lansdowne Road was for so many years. Add to this the fact that Ireland are riding a seven match losing streak against France and further doubts appear.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney will embark on his first Six Nations campaign with an impressive arsenal both up front and in the backline. Munster will once again provide the bedrock of the Irish challenge with Kidney opting for eight players from the province in his starting line-up with two more on the bench.
Anchoring the pack will be Munster lock Paul O'Connell and any significant title challenge will require him and the human dynamo that is openside David Wallace to be in imposing form. With a Lions tour to South Africa on the horizon neither man is likely to be found wanting for motivation.
Fly-half Ronan O'Gara will once again be key to any serious challenge and with provincial half-back partner Tomas O'Leary offering a stable footing - if they can reproduce their Munster form in the emerald green then Ireland are well set.
Brian O'Driscoll will lead the side from outside centre and as another Lions hopeful will be keen to put his indifferent provincial form behind him and deliver when his country needs it most. The 30-year-old, capped 88-times by his country, received the backing of his coach on the eve of the Championship but the fans are in need of a big match reminder that he still has the spark to ignite his side. He will be partnered in the midfield by Paddy Wallace in a combination last seen on the summer tour to Australia and New Zealand but one that dates back to U19 level. The Ulsterman's strong running ability, and experience at fly-half, should help unlock the much-heralded potential of the Irish backline an ease the burden on his skipper.
Fullback Rob Kearney has continually caught the eye for Leinster this season and big things are also expected of him with many touting him for a bright future. His pace and incisive running could be the key to Ireland ending a try drought that has brought just one score in their last two outings. Together with wingers Tyrone Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald they should be striking fear into all their rivals but question marks remain.
France coach Marc Lievremont came up just short in his first assault on the Six Nations crown last year when pipped to the title by Wales. His selection policy confused many as he rotated his options but we are promised a more settled approach this year with the former international flanker.
An attacking approach can be expected after Lievremont openly urged his side to 'free themselves' this week. "We want to win by scoring tries. We want to attack," insisted the coach. But he has opted for some untried combinations which must temper any hopes he and his fans may have.
Eye-brows were raised when Lievremont opted for just one recognised fly-half in his original squad in the form of Stade Francais' Lionel Beauxis who he rates as the best No.10 now and for the future. The pressure on the 23-year-old, who missed out in the autumn due to injury, is tangible especially as he will be partnering Castres No.9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde for the first time against the Irish.
Elsewhere, there are recalls in the back division for in-form Toulouse team-mates Florian Fritz and Clement Poitrenaud, at centre and fullback respectively. Poitrenaud's inclusion means a potential star of the Championship Maxime Medard moves to the wing where he displaces another Toulouse player, Cedric Heymans, who is on the bench. Talent in abundance but will they turn it on? The return of Poitrenaud is perhaps the most interesting selection following a rollercoaster career that has seen him bounce back to his best on the domestic stage this season.
In the forwards, an added dimension comes in the form of Imanol Harinordoquy who returns to the starting line-up at No.8 while Sale's Sebastien Chabal retains his spot at lock where he will partner captain Lionel Nallet.
On paper these sides are equally matched and the key factor in this contest could be the influence of Kidney. The former Munster coach knows his current charges better than anyone and could draw the best out of a hugely talented side. Lievremont too is blessed with an enviable group of players but he does not have the settled core that Kidney has inherited.
Expect Ireland to sound out a warning to their title rivals and get back to winning ways against their continental visitors.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: R Best (Ulster), T Court (Ulster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester).
France: Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse); Julien Malzieu (Clermont-Auvergne), Florian Fritz, Yannick Jauzion, Maxime Medard (all Toulouse); Lionel Beauxis (Stade Francais), Sebastien Tillous-Borde (Castres); Lionel Faure (Sale), Dimitri Szarzewski (Stade Francais), Benoit Lecouls (Toulouse), Sebastien Chabal (Sale), Lionel Nallet (Castres, capt), Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse), Fulgence Ouedraogo (Montpellier), Imanol Harinordoquy (Biarritz).
Replacements: Benjamin Kayser (Leicester), Nicolas Mas (Perpignan), Romain Millo-Chluski (Toulouse), Louis Picamoles (Montpellier), Morgan Parra (Bourgoin), Benoit Baby (Clermont-Auvergne), Cedric Heymans (Toulouse).
Referee: N. Owens
Assistant referees: D. Pearson D. Changleng
Television Match Official: G. De Santis
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies
Tom Hamilton runs the rule over just where the six countries stand ahead of the global gathering in September