SATURDAY’S Six Nations game against France really all depends on which French team decides to turn up.
Just 24 hours after Johnny Sexton and his fellow players had swept aside a dreadful Welsh team in Cardiff, France astonishingly found themselves embroiled in an arm wrestle with Italy who came within a whisker of beating one of the red-hot favourites to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy on October 28 in Stade de France.
Were it not for one or two unforced handling errors and a decision by the Italian captain Michele Lamaro to kick a penalty rather than opt for the corner and take their chances from the ensuing lineout, the Azzurri could well have caused one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Six Nations.
Traditionally, France are not comfortable when they are playing away from the safe confines of their motherland and there were times in this game when they looked as if they had no interest. However, on this occasion, we must also applaud Italy for playing a brand of rugby that is normally way beyond their capabilities.
Some might argue that France just didn’t care because they knew they were going to win no matter what and Italy produced a once-in-a-lifetime performance. If France were beaten though, their entire Six Nations campaign and preparations for the World Cup would have had to be completely reconfigured.
In the end, French substitute Matthieu Jalibert’s try made the difference, but France still had to stop a final Italian maul as they looked for a repeat of their famous last-gasp success against Wales in Cardiff during last season’s tournament.
The problem now is that France, who are very much a reactive side, think that they have a point to prove. Unfortunately, it’s Ireland who just happen to be next in line.
Andy Farrell has lost to the French in his three previous Six Nations encounters as Ireland's head coach and that is not a good omen irrespective of all the great victories Farrell has forged out over the last two years.
For some this match is considered the championship decider as it features the two favourites for the title and the current top two sides in the world.
Sport has a very funny way of making a mockery of ratings; and if Scotland can beat England and Italy run the French very close, every game in this year’s competition has the ability to throw a spanner in the works.
With a day less to prepare than Ireland, France have reported a clean bill of health which means that we can expect them to be fully locked and loaded when they run out onto the pristine surface of the Aviva which means, that we will get the opportunity to view the best nine and 10 axis in the world.
Fly-half, Romain Ntamack and captain Antoine Dupont have led this French side through thick and thin, and it is their capability to turn defence into attack within the blink of an eye that has placed them at the fulcrum of Fabien Galthie’s squad and the alliance in which he channels both attack and defensive strategies.
Ireland on the other hand will be without the services of Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson Park and stalworth Cian Healy which may not seem that important considering last week's all-conquering performance, but if the France that we all love to watch decide to make an appearance, then you will very quickly appreciate the importance of all three absentees.
This French team are one of the biggest and heaviest ever assembled for the international arena and should the game turn into a forward-dominated battle, both Mr Healy’s and Mr Furlong's power will be sadly missed.
On the flip side of that, if the game is open and free-flowing, there is no quicker distributor of the ball than Gibson Park and when you have a French side who love nothing better than to smash into rucks, the sooner the ball is safely in the hands of Sexton or an oncoming runner, the less opportunity there will be for counter rucking.
If Ireland can somehow mimic their blistering start to last week’s opener, it will have the visitors asking questions about themselves and when you have a French team whose confidence is knocked early on, they tend to start playing as individuals, which would suit Ireland perfectly. The formula for winning rugby matches will never change and a lot will depend on how the Irish forwards deal with the power and size of this French pack.
I don’t think we’ll see as much running from the Irish backline and I’d expect to see Sexton kick more often then we have of late. Let there be little doubt about it that Ireland are easily good enough to win this game; however, they also said the Titanic was unsinkable.
The beauty of sport.