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Paris continues to hold fear factor for Ireland

France struggling, but skeletons of the past won't be lost on anyone

By Alan Quinlan

It takes a lot to dampen the vibrant spirit of rugby addict Thomas Castaignede at any time of year, never mind on the eve of the Six Nations.

Since hanging up his boots, the diminutive wizard has never been shy about offering his tuppence worth on the state of play in the game he loves, further enhancing his reputation as a brash, expressive sort whose passion for the sport rarely wavers.

Yet when I contacted him this week it was obvious that discussions around this French team just didn't enthuse him. The dynamo has been deflated.

Les Bleus are in the doldrums and it's difficult to see them climbing back up any time soon, particularly with their hands tied by their self-centred club scene.

It's far from the shoulders-back, chest-out persona that once defined French rugby - an international side that intimidated Irish visitors with their aggression, ability to cut you open and striking aura of superiority on the field.

French rugby has been on the slide ever since they came agonisingly close to extending New Zealand's wait for a second Rugby World Cup more than six years ago.

Just one point separated the teams on that Auckland evening in 2011, but for French rugby fans it must seem like a lifetime ago.

Yet for all that Ireland are expected to win this evening, we've been here before.

We presumed that when David Humphreys converted Brian O'Driscoll's third and decisive try in the 27-25 win in Paris 18 years ago that the spell had been broken.

However, we have won there only once since, another two-point victory that could have gone either way, and that was to seal the Six Nations title in Joe Schmidt's first campaign at the helm.

We have all grown up expecting Ireland to be beaten in Paris and that is bound to leave a mental scar.

These two sides may appear to be travelling in different directions, but the Stade de France continues to be a haunted house for Irish rugby and the history, and skeletons of past defeats, will not be lost on either set of players.

It was only 12 months ago that Ireland were late getting off the bus in Scotland, and it wasn't long before the alarm bells were ringing due to a Six Nations campaign that was already unravelling.

That, along with the Paris fear factor, should strengthen Ireland's focus this evening but there are a few wild cards in the France camp that could catch them off guard, even though the odds seem to be stacked against the hosts.

Getting a squad Six Nations-ready in this short two-week period is incredibly difficult for a meticulous coach like Schmidt, even with the November internationals as a reference.

So, Jacques Brunel has a big job on his hands to get this French side functioning well enough to even operate at this level.

If France are to have any chance they will have to dominate physical exchanges, much like two years ago, when their intensity was obvious and strayed across the line of legality a few times.

Brunel's appointment of Julien Bonnaire as lineout coach catches the eye and while the 39-year-old is a sideline novice, he was an incredibly effective operator in his playing days and will have been working to try and find flaws in the Ireland set-piece.

Ireland's lineout has become one of their greatest weapons; they have a lot of strike plays, they can attack off the back of it and they can maul with devastating effect.

Bonnaire will have focused on trying to stem those opportunities, and that will come by putting pressure on Ireland in the air. It should be a fascinating sideshow today.

The appointments of Bonnaire and backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde are intriguing and neither should be written off because of their relative inexperience. In fact, they will probably complement an old-school coach like Brunel well.

The real difficulty for this French outfit will lie in achieving any kind of fluency.

A new head coach, a teenage debutant at fly-half and a number of unsettled combinations are probably going to lead to a disjointed performance.

However, the one thing you can't do against French sides is allow them to settle early and give them a platform for their individual brilliance.

They produce unbelievable athletes and if they get their confidence up and get on the front foot they can be very dangerous.

Andy Farrell would have been emphasising how important it is to keep France off balance by putting them under pressure; getting in their faces and preventing offloads.

If you do that, it makes it very difficult for an individual like Virimi Vakatawa or Matthieu Jalibert to create something out of nothing.

The hope from a French perspective is that they show enough to suggest that this Six Nations will not be a write-off.

If it turns out to be a disastrous campaign, the disillusionment in France will likely turn to despair and pressure will increase on Bernard Laporte to implement change domestically before the national team slide even further into the abyss.

The cash-rich Top 14 may be attracting the cream of the world's crop but it's at the expense of their national team.

The native talent is being held back by overseas players, and that needs to change.

Test rugby is still the piece de resistance of our game, and a dash of French flair is one of its most alluring features.

That's something Castaignede understands. It's no wonder he sounded deflated.

Jonathan Bradley’s state of the Six Nations

England

Management: With new contract in hand, Eddie Jones is looking to take England to an unprecedented third straight Six Nations title.

Captain: An indifferent run of form at Northampton, as well as the presence of Jamie George, had Dylan Hartley under pressure but he’s still there to take the armband.

Key Man: Maro Itoje, in combination with Courtney Lawes, will be tasked with bringing a real physicality to the tight exchanges.

Big Loss: England’s injury ‘crisis’ may have been exaggerated by Jones, but there isn’t a team in the world who wouldn’t miss Billy Vunipola.

Last year: Winners

Prediction: Second

Bookies’ Odds: Evens

VERDICT: Only two games in Twickenham but if they can come past Scotland in Murrayfield, all bets are off.

Ireland

Management: Joe Schmidt takes charge of his fifth Six Nations championship with eyes firmly set on a third title.

Captain: Ulsterman Rory Best, even at 35 years old, is still leading Ireland and packing down in the middle of their front-row.

Key Man: If Ireland’s half-back duo of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton stay fit, they are a pair to rival anyone.

Big Loss: Ireland not as badly hit as others but are still missing some starters. Jared Payne is out and so too, initially, Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose.

Last year: 2nd

Prediction: 1st

Bookies’ Odds: 6/4

VERDICT: Guilty of looking down the track at what was to come this time last year, but Ireland have France before they’ve any time to gel, followed by three consecutive home games. Could it all hinge on St Patrick’s Day in Twickenham in Round Five? It certainly seems as if it might.

Scotland

Management: Former Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend takes Scotland into his first Six Nations looking to build on what was a massively encouraging autumn.

Captain: He hasn’t always been flavour of the month in Scotland, but John Barclay’s form for Scarlets could not be ignored for any longer.

Key Man: Stuart Hogg can once again be expected to be a man who lights up this Championship, having been named its best player two years running.

Big Loss: Zander Fagerson’s early absence has been compounded by injury to WP Nel and Simon Berghan’s ban. Depth at prop is

a glaring issue.

Last year: 4th

Prediction: 3rd

Bookies’ Odds: 10/1

VERDICT: So much rests on beating Wales away for a first time since 2002, but most likely to make it a three horse race.

France

Management: Guy Noves got just two bites at the Six Nations cherry and has been replaced by former Italy coach Jacques Brunel.

Captain: Toulon’s Guilhem Guirado may feel like something of a babysitter at times; the only man in his thirties captains the side.

Key Man: Racing 92’s Maxime Machenaud will be asked to guide young Matthieu Jalibert through his first Test exposure.

Big Loss: Clermont trio Morgan Parra, Wes Fofana and Camille Lopez all out.

Last year: 3rd

Prediction: 4th

Bookies’ Odds: 25/1

VERDICT: The hardest to call of all the sides amidst yet more change. Figure to get better as they go with more game and training time together. Their trip to Cardiff to face whoever is left standing in Wales will likely decide their standing in the final shakedown.

Italy

Management: Former Irish international Conor O’Shea will want to see the improved form of Italy’s club sides’ transfer to the international arena.

Captain: As ever, the brilliant Sergio Parisse will be Italy’s leader, although the great man could become the first ever player to lose 100 Tests should Italy suffer five defeats.

Key Man: With some senior men close to walking off into the sunset, much hope rests on Italy’s youngsters. Renato Giammarioli is one of the hot prospects.

Big Loss: Leonardo Sarto, Angelo Esposito and Michele Campagnaro are all big losses.

Last year: 6th

Prediction: 6th

Bookies’ Odds: 1000/1

VERDICT: Haven’t won a game in this competition since 2015, with their no-ruck tactics against England a year ago the only highlight since. Hard to see where win will come from.

Wales

Management: Warren Gatland is back after missing last year’s Six Nations through his British and Irish Lions commitments.

Captain: It has almost felt like a case of last man standing when it comes to Wales’ senior players but Alun Wyn Jones is fit to lead the side out.

Key Man: With Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland out, there is plenty on the shoulders of Rhys Patchell heading into this tournament.

Big Loss: Where to start? Biggar, Rhys Webb, Taulupe Faletau, Jonathan Davies, Sam Warburton and, first up at least, Liam Williams all out.

Last year: 5th

Prediction: 5th

Bookies’ Odds: 14/1

VERDICT: A simply unrelenting list of injuries has made it almost impossible to see Wales play a part in the championship shakedown. Today’s fixture with Scotland, given that England and Ireland are next on tap, really could shape how things are seen come mid-March.

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