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Writing on wall for France


By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The Six Nations is all about familiarity. Age-old rivalries, venues you know like the back of your hand, tradition after tradition and clichés that last the test of time.

One rings true more than any other this season. France? You never know which team is going to turn up.

For the past few seasons, you could be sure that Les Bleus would be a pack of hulking bruisers with a surfeit of brawn and a deficit of grey matter.

They could cause anyone a problem, but their fitness invariably let them down and ultimately they have failed to threaten since 2011.

In 2017, they won just three of their 11 Test matches and that record - in particular the draw with Japan in November - led to Guy Noves being relieved of his commission.

He has subsequently been replaced by Jacques Brunel, a familiar figure from his time with Italy.

A pragmatic, experienced coach with close ties to Bernard Laporte, he hardly looks the kind of figure to shake up the French national team from its slumber.

Laporte, the former coach and current head of the French federation who sacked Noves, is under fire himself.

Last Tuesday, his home and the federation's office was raided by police investigating an alleged conflict of interest involving Laporte and Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad.

Brunel insists that the controversy has nothing to do with his squad, but it all points to a shambolic set-up ahead of the Championship opener.

At the Six Nations launch on Wednesday, Joe Schmidt did everything he could to talk up his opponents but he was swimming against the tide.

Over in New Zealand, Ronan O'Gara's description of Les Bleus as being in "a mess" rang truer with the perception. Any Irish player who endured the bad days in Paris is wary of the force that France can bring, but the former out-half believes that a well-organised Irish side can win the day.

"France have a lot of players that were missing but you would like to think Ireland will be too disciplined and organised for them," he said in December.

"They are so far down the road. It's a small chance that the French could show up and play an offload game and get on the front foot and the public get behind them.

"It's that kind of a stadium where it's a little bit of the unknown in terms of how measured they are. But with Ireland where they are at the minute, I think it would be a big shock if Ireland weren't to win."

For Schmidt, France present an unusual challenge because this is their first international under their new coaching team. Brunel (below) has picked two inexperienced out-halves in Matthieu Jalibert and Anthony Belleau.

Jalibert (19) is uncapped, but the expectation is that Brunel will turn to the teenager for the opening game. He is highly rated and the head coach knows him from his time at Bordeaux, but the step up from Top 14 to playing opposite Johnny Sexton on the biggest stage is a big one.

Louis Picamoles was among the big names who failed to make the cut for the former Italy supremo's squad and, while Schmidt waxed lyrical about the athletic prowess of back-rows Sekou Makalou and Yacouba Camara, the French seem less scary without the big Montpellier No 8 who always causes Ireland problems.

Two years ago, Ireland were in a less secure place when they went to Paris but they still expected to win.

However, they ran aground in the second half of a brutally physical game and the encounter ultimately turned on their scrum as tournament newcomer Tadhg Furlong struggled to perform.

Schmidt has learnt the lessons of that day and it's likely that size will matter when it comes to selection.

A more experienced, better-drilled team should come away from round one with a win despite the muscle memory of so many difficult days in Paris haunting the Irish psyche.

For all of their individual strengths, there is nothing to suggest that France are any different this year.

Belfast Telegraph

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