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France's new kids on block set sights on Irish old guard

 

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Ulster coach Dan McFarland

Ulster coach Dan McFarland

�INPHO/James Crombie

Ulster coach Dan McFarland

For all the talk of Ireland's search for a bonus point in Paris, and what sort of target England will set them in Rome earlier in the afternoon, it's easy to forget the third team in the title equation today.

Easier still to lose sight of how they could really be targeting a Grand Slam in the eerie confines of an empty Stade de France tonight. Having begun their campaign by beating England and then winning in Cardiff during round three, the revamped Les Bleus looked to have done the hard work that would ensure the finale would see them going for a triumphant first clean sweep since 2010 just as their home World Cup in 2023 edges into view.

While defeat to Scotland in the last days before the first lockdown ensured that wasn't to be, and means they go into this 'Super Saturday' at long odds for a title, they remain arguably, in purely rugby terms, the story of this most bizarre Championship.

A decade without a title for a squad such as France is verging on the scarcely believable and, while this year will go down as a missed opportunity, it feels like only a matter of time before the streak comes to an end.

That their future looks so bright is down to the youth of their half-back pairing, the Toulouse duo of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.

Ulster got first-hand experience of their abilities in last month's Champions Cup quarter-final and Ireland coach Andy Farrell is already wary of a man Dan McFarland recently called "probably the best scrum-half in the world".

"Wow, he's some player, isn't he?" said Farrell of Dupont.

"They've got threats all across the back-line but Dupont, he's a fighter, isn't he? He's a winner as well. He's not just got all the skill, he's got the will to win as well and his strength is one of his biggest strengths.

"He's a threat, so he's somebody that we've talked heavily about."

Such is their youth, Ntamack is 21 and Dupont 23, the pair grew up watching today's opposite numbers Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray. It seems they're just as wary of Ireland's nine and 10.

"We know them very well, they're Ireland's key players," said Ntamack. "Clearly, we have to pay close attention to them. We have focused on them since the beginning of the week.

"We know all too well that the whole of Ireland's game plan is orchestrated by them and we have to be extremely vigilant."

A fascinating battle between the old and new awaits.

Belfast Telegraph


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