Despite Ireland’s lacklustre performance in grinding out a last-ditch 13-11 victory over Italy in Rome in last weekend’s RBS Six Nations Championship opener, coach Declan Kidney has given those players who were guilty of a catalogue of errors a vote of confidence.
His team to face France, the defending champions and the side to have relieved Ireland of their Grand Slam status last season, shows just one change to that which started against the Azzurri.
As a result of having recovered from the ankle injury which saw him ruled of that one, first choice No 8, Jamie Heaslip, is restored to the middle of the back row.
Heaslip’s return sees Leinster team-mate Sean O'Brien switch to the blindside flank with Munster’s Denis Leamy dropping down to the replacements and Shane Jennings — on bench duty last weekened — omitted from the matchday 22.
Other than that it’s as you were, with David Wallace, who scored against France in Paris last year when Ireland crashed to a 3-10 defeat — their first reversal in 15 months — completing the back row starters.
Despite considerable pre-announcement conjecture about the possibility of a change at scrum-half where Tomas O’Leary was unimpressive last Saturday, and in the centre where Gordon D’Arcy had an afternoon he will want to forget, once again Kidney has remained loyal to players who have served him well in the past.
Thus D’Arcy continues to partner Leinster colleague and Ireland captain, Brian O’Driscoll, who is in his 12th Six Nations and now needs just one more touchdown to equal Ian Smith’s Championship try-scoring record of 24 which has stood for 87 years.
Kidney has shown his willingness to allow units to blend and gel, witness another outing for last week’s front row and back three.
While those six players undoubtedly will appreciate their coach’s show of faith, his hope and expectation is that they now justify it by rewarding him with the performance Ireland will require if they are to see off opponents against whom their record is very poor.
France have won eight of the past nine clashes with Ireland — seven Six Nations successes plus a brace of World Cup victories in 2003 and 2007.
Indeed, Ireland’s only victory over the French in that time was two years ago when, at Croke Park, they won 30-21 in the opening match of their march to the Grand Slam. And you have to go back all the way to 2001 to discover when they last beat France at Lans
downe Road. “Things (in Italy) didn’t go exactly as we would have wanted them to go but my trust in them to sort that out would be very high,” said Kidney.
“Even though it looks pretty much like a closed team with only one change you look to everything because we have fair competition now for lots of positions right down throughout the side.
“You try to look at each guy on his own merits and see what he can (do) and then you see what the collective would look like.
“We could make several changes and everybody’s going to bring their own bits and pieces to it but we just thought that, as a collective, to go with pretty much the same side as the last time.
“You spend a good bit of time on this. You watch the video a few times to see what you’re coming up against next, you see what game it is the competition and you weigh (things) up. There’s a compendium that goes into making up what your selection might be.”
Reflecting on France’s performance against Scotland last Saturday night at Stade de France where they won 34-21, Kidney observed: “I think they scored three-four tries on turn-overs and when you see out-halves passing the ball back between their legs and scoring a try (from that) you know that they’re playing full of confidence.
“They have guys with big kicks so they can get themselves out of trouble quite easily with that. And yet, if you hang back off them — say you keep four fellas back — then they’ll attack your 11 defenders and have a go at you there. They’re just a good quality all round side.”
L Fitzgerald (Leinster); |F McFadden (Leinster), |B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), |G D'Arcy (Leinster), |K Earls (Munster); |J Sexton (Leinster), |T O'Leary (Munster); |C Healy (Leinster), |R Best (Ulster), |M Ross (Leinster), |D O'Callaghan (Munster), |P O'Connell (Munster), |S O'Brien (Leinster), |D Wallace (Munster), |J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin |(Connacht), T Court (Ulster), |L Cullen (Leinster), D Leamy |(Munster), E Reddan (Leinster), |R O'Gara (Munster), |P Wallace (Ulster).