This looks like a solid Ireland team. There aren’t too many changes in the backline, though it’s interesting to see in the pack that Tadgh Beirne and Sean O’Brien didn’t make the squad.
Those are probably the two standout things for me – Tadgh’s been going really well for Munster and has been a consistent performer over the past year or two. It’s surprising not to see him involved. Seanie probably didn’t have his best game last time, but he still adds a lot to the team so it’s surprising to see him out of the picture as well.
Ireland are in for a tough game, no doubt, but they’ve picked what’s probably their strongest side under the circumstances.
On Josh Van Der Flier…
While Josh doesn’t have the same physicality as Seanie, he has the work rate and is a threat at every breakdown. He’s got one of the biggest engines I’ve seen on a rugby pitch. He’s a very intelligent number seven, similar in type to someone like Richie McCaw – he may not be big and brash, but he pops up everywhere. He’s got that low centre of gravity and is really tough to move.
I think he’ll go really well. He’s one of the form players in the Irish setup at the moment, has been a consistent performer and deserves his shot.
Garry Ringrose also back in…
Garry’s a very clever and very agile player – and a different type of player to Chris Farrell in terms of what they bring to the team. In fairness to Chris, the side as a whole didn’t go well against Italy, so it would be harsh to single him out. I rate Chris really highly and I don’t think there’s a huge difference in ability between him and Garry.
It didn’t help Chris that he hasn’t played as much as Garry, who has a strong partnership with Bundee Aki, which may have led to Joe Schmidt favouring him here. Chris will get another shot, and he’s improving all the time: he can be world class.
That said, it’s nice to see Garry in there, and it’s a big chance for him to show what he can do. He’ll know Robbie Henshaw’s still to come back into the mix as well, so there’s a lot of competition for places in the centre. We’ll see the best out of Garry and Bundee this weekend for exactly that reason.
Impact off the bench?
Maybe we’ve lacked a little bit of impact off the bench in this Six Nations so far. We’re used to seeing replacements come on and win games for Ireland, giving them some extra impetus and freshness, which may not have been there over the past couple of matches.
Jordan Larmour and Jack Conan are definitely two guys who’ll definitely add a touch of spark or energy to proceedings in the last 20 or 30 minutes when defences are getting tired. Hopefully the game won’t be as tight as I believe it will be and they’ll get a chance to come on and enjoy some free space and ball in hand. But I imagine it’ll be a very close game and there may not be too many replacements made at any point. Our bench is definitely looking fresh and eager to impress.
I’d probably have had Sean Cronin in there as an impact player as well. Niall Scannell is a quality operator and he’s been breathing down Sean and Rory Best’s necks for a while now, but you could look at Sean’s exclusion either of two ways: either it’s very harsh on him to be dropped after what was – bizarrely – his first start in the Six Nations, or you can see it as the management team acknowledging that they know what they’ll get from him and giving Niall a well-deserved chance.
There are a lot of factors in the equation and I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as Sean being dropped because he wasn’t good enough on the day. There’s a World Cup approaching and it’s a good time to give game-time to someone without losing any strength. It’s unfortunate for Sean but it’s a big opportunity for Niall to get some experience.
France performed well against Scotland but the Scots were one or two completed passes away from beating them. So I don’t think France are anywhere near the finished article – there are still a lot of fresh faces and players who haven’t played much with one another.
Ireland will be licking their lips and Joe will have done a lot of analysis on where France can be exploited, but having said that there are a lot of form players in Jacques Brunel’s side. If you just look at the French team on paper, they’re incredibly dangerous from one to 15.
But I’m not sure they have that collective sense as much as Ireland at this stage in their development. Ireland have been together for a long time and have had consistency with coaches and game plans – I just don’t think that’s there with France at the moment.
They’ll be up for this, though. They want a big performance. Chatting to the French boys during the week, this is a game they’ve been eyeing up for a while, especially after the heartbreak of last season. Ireland can’t afford to take them for granted. They’ll be trying to turn Ireland over. It’s going to be a great match.
Bastareaud v Sexton
I wouldn’t make too much of Mathieu Bastareaud’s supposed targeting of Johnny Sexton in the past. Basta’s whole game is about being direct and bringing brute force and power to every collision. If Johnny wants to take the ball to the line as much as he does – which is great for Ireland in terms of sucking in defenders – he’s going to get hit. That’s just rugby.
Any chance Basta gets this weekend, he’s going to try and run over the top of Johnny.
It just makes sense to try to put that wear and tear on an out-half who’s a key decision-maker on the opposing team. Every team would go out to target the 10 with their big centres running down that channel. Basta’s a tough man to stop, so Johnny will be looking to slow down his momentum as much as possible. Even though Johnny knows it’ll be coming, it’ll be very hard to stop. But he’s well able for it.