Former Munster and Leicester Tigers player looks ahead to the third Six Nations weekend
Week 3 of the Six Nations and the French are rolling into town. This weekend is going to play a huge part in where the championship will end up.
If France and Wales win, they are going to be reliant on Scotland and/or Ireland in the next two weeks to beat England. If Scotland and Ireland win their respective fixtures, the championship is still hanging in the balance. It would be great for the championship if Scotland pulled through this weekend and headed for Twickenham pushing for a chance at Six Nations glory.
In previous years playing France third up after two tough openers was a great time to get them. Usually the players return to their respective clubs and play in the Top 14. This not only takes its toll on their bodies but can also be mentally draining for all the players. For the first time ever this is not happening because of the new deal that was agreed between the clubs and Bernard Laporte. This makes the French an even tougher task than normal.
With this structure change off the pitch, there also seems to be a structure change on the pitch. France now have a clear way of playing the game. They play a 1-3-3-1 system, similar to that of Munster. This is focused very much on a north-south direction, with two three-man pods in the middle channels and two singular forwards in the wider channels, generally Guirado and Picamoles. They certainly still have that French flair and that "jouer" mentality. This was clear to see during the Scottish game because at times it managed to run them into trouble.
They have an electric back three that are very dangerous from deep. But this unit can also be a weakness of theirs, especially in terms of backfield cover. Watching their back three, they only have one player, Yoann Huget, in the unit that understands how a back three pendulum should work. Scott Spedding at full back can be very loose and with Noa Nakaitaci you have little to no backfield cover. He does however give you electric pace and finishing ability that very few in the game possess.
Their scrum is a weapon that they launched very effectively last year and if the weather stays the way it is, this area could have a huge impact on the result. For me this is one of Ireland's main areas of improvement over the last 12 months, with real strength and depth now appearing. All six have scrummed against French opposition this year in the Champions cup. This will stand to them especially the less experienced pairing of John Ryan and Niall Scannell coming off the bench to hopefully close the game out.
France’s Louis Picamoles and Camille Lopez ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
For Ireland to win this game, I feel they need to manage the backfield well. I speak about the kick-kick battle a lot but feel this weekend it is very important. If Ireland can draw France into a kick-kick battle and stop them running from the backfield, this will go along way to winning the game. Ireland need to find space in the backfield when kicking and meet them with a good line chase, limiting the time and space they have on the ball. Johnny Sexton’s selection will boost this area. Paddy Jackson is unlucky to miss out. He has played well over the last two games. Johnny Sexton is Johnny Sexton and on his day is one of the best, if not the best, 10 in the world. So when fit he will start.
When Ireland have ball in hand, they need to move the point of contact quickly and keep the tempo high. The France team are made up of massive men and moving them at high speed around the pitch will create opportunities in the closing the 15-20 minutes. If Ireland get brought into a set piece, stop-start game, that could play into the hands of the French.
If Ireland can control the tempo of the game, moving the point of contact with the ball in hand and without the ball build pressure through their kicking, finding space and contesting well in the air, ultimately limiting the French back three’s space to run, Ireland should win - just!
It's going to be a very close game, hopefully it’s a lovely spring afternoon and Storm Doris has passed through fully or else it could be a long wet day in Aviva.
My prediction: Ireland to edge it by two.