In recent years you wouldn’t give France a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a match in Dublin, even if they did snatch a 13-13 draw as recently as 2013. But last month’s victory over Scotland in Paris alters the whole dynamic and puts a bit of breeze in French sails.
France named an unchanged side, which is newsworthy in itself because Jacques Brunel is known to tinker with his team as much as Jose Mourinho did when he had one to tinker with. It is a rare vote of confidence in the squad that beat Scotland with a four-try bonus and, rather than fade, got stronger as the match progressed, almost as if they had rediscovered the secret of winning matches.
In contrast Ireland have changed seven from the team that struggled to subdue Italy in Rome, with flanker Sean O’Brien the high profile casualty. He drops out of the match day squad with Josh van der Flier taking the No.7 jersey and Jack Conan covering from the bench. O’Brien joins London Irish in the summer and now faces a fight to make Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad with the likes of Dan Leavy still to come back into the mix.
The Irish upheaval isn’t as dramatic as you might imagine. Three of those seven changes to the starting XV, Rory Best, Cian Healy and James Ryan, were rested against Italy while CJ Stander and Garry Ringrose return from injury to take their place in the run-on team for the first time since that opening-day defeat by England.
Iain Henderson is the seventh and final change for today’s match, with the lock returning to the front line after injury concerns restricted his appearances thus far to a cameo off the bench in Rome two weeks ago.
“It’s a home game so I think a lot of the boys who played in the England game will feel that they have something to produce at home that they haven’t done this campaign already,” said Henderson who missed that England defeat in Dublin.
“It’s a bit like what I said before about not having that many games. This championship has only two games at home. One of them didn’t go the way we wanted it to, so that only leaves one other game in this championship to put down a stamp at home. We’ll not play another competitive game at home until this time next year and I think that’s something massive, performing at home in front of the home supporters.
“The lads who played against England will have that in the back of their minds and the lads who are coming in will realise that they’ve got to add something. They’ve got to come into the Aviva and actually add something to try and improve the performance and essentially make a point. Those things combine will I think increase the performance and hopefully make for better viewing.”
Henderson is something of a lucky charm for Ireland, at least when it comes to facing the French. He made an appearance in that 13-13 draw in 2013 in what was his first Championship season and since then the versatile flanker/lock has gone on to play Les Bleus five more times, winning every match.
His last game against France came just last season when Ireland needed a late, late drop goal by Johnny Sexton to dig them out off a hole in Paris and they will hope that this afternoon’s encounter is settled long before the 80-minute mark.
The spotlight will inevitably fall upon Ireland’s out-half tomorrow afternoon because Sexton, perhaps for the first time in his career, is struggling for form and his angry response to being subbed in Rome (he kicked a towel) suggests that he knows it.
Any problems that the fly-half is wrestling with will only be magnified by coming up against his opposite number Romain Ntamack who, at the age of 19, plays with the carefree attitude of youth.
Only last week Sexton insisted that he felt absolutely no obligation to offer any of his rivals for the Ireland ten shirt (for rivals read Munster’s Joey Carbery with whom he had a very public spat in the last inter-provincial derby) a helping hand. Sexton may be the World Rugby Player of the Year but the fly-half appears to be focused solely on one person, himself, rather than the squad which can’t be good news for Ireland in World Cup year.
With the home team in some disarray the French can and will cause some mischief, especially if they start fast, take an early lead and make Ireland chase the game as Scotland were forced to do.
That old authority, accuracy and sheer bloody-minded determination not to finish second to anyone seems to have dissipated over time although you fancy, with Schmidt able to pick something like his best XV, Ireland should have enough residual resilience to get the job done.