There is little separating Ireland and France across their first three games
Ireland and France bring their unbeaten records to Cardiff on Sunday, with the winners set for a seven-day rest before a quarter-final against Argentina, while the losers will have to take on the All Blacks with less than a week to prepare.
It’s a decisive match in Pool D and one that might well define Ireland’s tournament and the careers of some of their old stagers. The Men In Green have unfinished business when it comes to the Rugby World Cup, never getting beyond the last eight. It’s no exaggeration to say, the Shamrocks World Cup bid hinges on events at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday evening.
Canny head coach Joe Schmidt’s been planning for this match for months, as have the backroom staff. And the Kiwi boss will be imploring his side to show their true colours after the Irish were forced to fight and scrap a 16-9 win over a hungry Italian side last weekend. A repeat of that impotent and scruffy performance won’t wash here.
The Azzurri’s physicality stunted Ireland’s phase play but Schmidt’s side are well aware they need to raise their game. The Men In Green have been synonymous with intelligent, effective, unflashy, disciplined rugby during the New Zealander’s reign and the Irish will know subduing Les Blues up front will be critical to their chances of topping Pool D.
French coach Philippe Saint-Andre says his side are far from fearful of Ireland despite failing to record a win (W0-D2-L2) over the Greens under his watch and that’s understandable. Les Blues head to the Welsh capital on the back of a five-match winning streak, a first under Saint-Andre, whilst the two losses against Ireland came by an aggregate winning margin of just nine points.
These contests are often tight, ugly and reliant on set-piece superiority. Ireland enjoy their best phases on the back of quick ball but France will employ breakdown specialists Eddy Ben Arous and Bernard Le Roux to disrupt their patterns. And up front Les Blues boast one of the meatiest packs at this World Cup, making the scrum an intriguing contest.
However, Ireland should enjoy supremacy at the line-out. The reigning Six Nations champions have enjoyed 100% success on their own throw and can also lay claim to eight steals – more than any other side in the competition. The suggestion from the Irish camp this week is, they’ll go hunting French ball from the line-out.
There’s no doubt Saint-Andre will target the mercurial Johnny Sexton. Ireland’s flyhalf has been subject to plenty of media attention in the build-up after his less-than-impressive spell playing in France’s Top 14.
Power runners, such as juggernaut Mathieu Bastareaud will be aimed down the 10’s channel but Les Blues could also frustrate the Men In Green’s unofficial leader by fracturing the flow of possession at the ruck, in doing so, nullifying Ireland’s quick ball threat.
It’s a fascinating encounter that will have the feel of a knockout tie. For Ireland especially, defeat isn’t an option. There’s little to split the sides in the scrum but Ireland edge it at the lineout, in defence, with the boot and in the disciplinary stakes.
They also have arguably the world’s best analyst and match planner onside in Schmidt. No wonder the Shamrocks are rated 3/4 favourites and given a three-point deficit in the handicap market to overcome.
The French have shown flashes of what they are capable of in their opening trio of games and do have a smattering of world class operators across the field. However, the aforementioned areas give the Greens the advantage and I reckon they’ll squeeze into top spot by a victory between one and five points at 18/5 – a much more attractive proposition than taking either side on the such narrow handicap margins.
Ireland v France – Ireland win by 1-5 points (18/5)Add to betslip