Six Nations France v Ireland: Five Ireland players with a point to prove
Ireland’s chances of retaining their Six Nations crown will hang by a thread unless they emerge from Paris with a victory tomorrow and a number of Irish players will have extra incentive to leave their mark on the game.
Following the absorbing draw with Wales, Joe Schmidt has shuffled his backline with injury concerns surrounding Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, while Sean O’Brien returns in a hugely formidable backrow.
Here are five Ireland players bursting at the seams to make an impression at the Stade de France.
The Tullow Tank needs little reminding of his last outing in green, a World Cup appearance against tomorrow’s opposition. A brilliant victory was marred by injuries and the powerful backrower missed the defeat to Argentina after a strike on Pascal Pape.
“It was something that shouldn’t have happened…discipline is going to be massive,” he admitted this week when the issue of keeping tempers in check was raised.
Tommy O’Donnell can count himself very unfortunate to make way after a starring role against Wales, but a fit O’Brien is almost an automatic choice. His ball-carrying will be key and the Leinster flanker will be keen to remind observers of his own ability in an ultra-competitive back row unit.
Expect a big performance from the inspirational 28-year-old.
The Ireland out-half is unhappy with claims from observers without suitable medical background calling for his retirement following a series of head injuries.
“People asking was I okay, if I was retiring, if I had really bad issues and that's all from a person who's totally uneducated in the area speaking their mind about something they don't really know about”
Sexton was clearly not impressed with overly critical articles from the French media regarding his performances when he was asked this week.
“I do think it's a little bit more personal especially some of the stuff that was written about me by certain French journalists… It does hurt when it is not true," he admitted.
It’s fair to say the former Racing Metro will have extra motivation when he takes to the Stade de France tomorrow.
After struggling for form on his return to Leinster, the 30-year-old demonstrated his accuracy from the tee (four from four) against Wales and composure to slot a long-range effort with five minutes to go to salvage the draw.
Just how much Sexton will be able to get his backline into full flight remains to be seen, but the number 10 is likely to be the most influential figure in a green jersey.
The flanker could have done little more last weekend, but the return to fitness of Sean O’Brien sees the Tipperary man demoted to the bench.
O’Donnell admitted in the lead up to the Six Nations opener that his most recent injury, the dislocated hip that ruled him out of the World Cup, made him appreciate how difficult international caps are to come by.
He is likely to feature at the Stade de France and will be hell-bent on continuing where he left off against Wales and give Joe Schmidt more of a selection headache against England in two weeks.
The Irish scrum had its difficulties in the scrum against Wales, most evident in the build-up to the visitors’ only try of the game through Toby Faletau.
In the loose Jack McGrath was impressive and one of Ireland’s most effective tacklers, but admittedly found the going tough against a powerful frontrow unit.
Eddie Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani have surprisingly been dropped to the French bench, but Jefferson Poirot, Guilhem Guirado and Uini Atonio will be a stern test for McGrath and his frontrow colleagues.
“We probably got on the wrong side of the referee a little bit,” he admitted in his analysis of the 16-16 draw, but will have to be on best behaviour for Jaco Peyper in front of a raucous home support.
It seems almost absurd that the 67-cap and two-time Lions tourist is under pressure for the 15 jersey, but there are justifiable reasons why some have questioned whether the Leinster man should have been held in reserve as continues his playing comeback.
Kearney has played just six provincial games this term and is only beginning to play his way back into form. Simon Zebo had his moments against Wales, with his elusive running putting Wales in the back foot, though injury concerns made Schmidt's decision that bit easier.
No-one doubts the Louth man’s defensive capabilities, but whether he will have the opportunity to attack the gainline with menace is another matter.