August 8, 2022

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You could hear this match between Ireland and France coming way back in the autumn....

You could hear this match between Ireland and France coming way back in the autumn. The anticipation has been building like a drum fill since the two teams beat New Zealand on back-to-back Saturdays last November.
Right now, the world rankings will tell you that Ireland are the best team in Europe. The French, who were, after all, the last team to beat Ireland when they won 15-13 in Dublin last year, believe differently. They are playing to settle that, the shot at the grand slam, and something more, too. The winner will step forward full of confidence that they can beat the best teams in the biggest games, with the ringing conviction that they are the top team.

The loser will have to live with the knowledge that they came up short when it counted most, and deal with the doubt that follows a step backwards. At the start of the week, you could have made a case that the Irish were just about favourites, even though they are going away from home. They had played pitilessly well against Wales last Saturday, while France had had a harder time getting past Italy a day later.
And then the news broke that Johnny Sexton had strained a hamstring and would miss this game. In a match as finely poised as this, that was enough, all of a sudden, to tilt the balance back the other way. “That’s sport,” said Ireland’s head coach, Andy Farrell.
His team had trained for this, rehearsed it in practice, swapping Sexton and his replacement Joey Carbery in and out for the last three weeks. The game’s never just about one man, Farrell said, and he’s right. His Ireland team have grown over the last year, winning nine games on the bounce, and don’t depend on Sexton like they used to. But it’s true, too, that some players are easier to do without than others, and Sexton, the man who won the game with a 45-metre drop-goal the last time Ireland won in Paris, is about the last one Farrell would want to lose.
For Ireland, then, the game has become a different sort of test. The question in front of them now is how they’ll go without their captain and playmaker, and whether Carbery, who has played so well off the bench since he made his debut in 2016, is the man to take over when Sexton has finally gone for good. It’s an issue they have been worrying about on and off for the last few years. It even came up in the last World Cup, when Sexton was forced out of Ireland’s pool match against Japan with a thigh injury. On that occasion, Farrell’s predecessor Joe Schmidt picked Jack Carty to start, and put Carbery on the bench. Ireland lost 19-12. This time, Farrell has them the other way round.

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Even so, the Irish have been talking a good game. The players and coaches have sounded calm and confident all week. “We’re very clear on where we’re sitting at the moment, how we’ve developed our game, how we’re playing the game,” says the scrum coach John Fogarty. “We’ve played France twice in the last two years, when we came here last time out we didn’t feel as ready as we do now.” They sound like a team who know exactly how they want to win.
“There’s going to be times when we have to muscle up, but in general we want to be on our feet, we don’t want to be on the ground, and we don’t want to be clustered in any parts of the field. Hopefully we can spend more time playing the game than in an arm-wrestle.”

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The question is how well that plan holds up when the French bring the hammer down on it. Their head coach, Fabien Galthié, has brought the burly François Cros into the back row to bolster his monumental pack, and loaded his bench with six forwards too. They’ll look to soften Ireland up, and then strike. The chances are there will be a moment in there, somewhere, when it’s all Ireland can do to stay in the game. Farrell knows it, and has tried to prepare his team for it.
“There’s no doubt that France are going to have a purple patch, it’s an absolute given,” Farrell says, “How we get back on task is going to be key for both sides, no doubt about that.”
If they can hold on through that stretch, then the game may come down to the replacements. It’s a sign of just how strong this Ireland squad is that they have five British and Irish Lions on the bench. If the match is still in the balance at that point, it might be the young French side who start to feel the pressure. As Galthié put it, in his own inimitable way, “we are touching the summit of European rugby, the sublime side of the European game.” Which, if you need the translation, is his way of saying it’s going to be a hell of a match.

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