World No1 Ireland face Six Nations champions France in a collision of rugby superpowers
Frank Sinatra’s first (and only) freelance photography assignment came at Madison Square Garden on 8 March 1971. It was the night of the first encounter between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali and, finding ringside tickets rather hard to come by, the singer sought commission from Life magazine to ensure the perfect view.
You somehow doubt Sinatra would have had quite so much difficulty finding a seat at the Aviva Stadium this weekend but Ireland vs France might just have tickled Sinatra’s fancy, were he still around. Rugby’s “Fight of the Century”? That would be overstating it, but the circumstances make this heavyweight clash an appropriate occasion for the sort of pomp this championship does best.
It is a long while since two of the Six Nations could attest to rule the men’s rugby realm but in Ireland and France the Northern Hemisphere has two pre-eminent powers entering this World Cup year. In the blue corner, the defending Grand Slam champions on a 14-match unbeaten run. In the green, the top-ranked team in the world hunting a significant step on their own title pursuit.
“Everyone is looking forward to this,” Ireland head coach Andy Farrell said on Thursday. “I’ve been walking around and everyone is pumped.
“I wish I was going to the game, and walking down to the game with my mates or my family or kids, because this is the type of game that everyone wants to be part of. There’s extra spice out there because it’s two good teams going at it.”
Ireland have proved plenty in the last few years but their opponents stand as an impediment still to be overcome. The hosts are yet to beat France under Farrell’s rule. Last year, sans Johnny Sexton, they fell narrowly short, left to rue their ill-discipline in a ferocious first half.
With their captain back in harness at fly-half, confidence is high that the wrongs can be righted. “Last year, we probably gave them a few too many easy points in the first half,” recalled Ireland wing James Lowe. “We fought back in the second half but we weren’t quite there. I think we’re a different team now compared to where we were 12 months ago.
“We’re going to go out and give it a good crack. If they beat us and the better team wins, that’s what happens, it’s rugby, it’s sport. We’re going to leave no stone unturned to make sure we show up on the big stage.”
The prospect of a potential meeting come the pointy end of the autumn’s World Cup only layers further intrigue on the contest. There are similarities between the sides, not so much structurally but stylistically, with nimble-fingered forwards around the fringes to the fore and roaming, versatile backs beyond.
Italy’s uber-attacking approach last weekend may have led to the soft concession of soft early points but did appear to unsettle the French. Shaun Edwards will expect a very different test against this well-grooved, cohesive Irish side – the hosts do have adventure in their armoury but may consider this an afternoon for pragmatism.
Perhaps the only shame is that we will not see these two quite in full form. For Gabin Villiere, Jonathan Danty and Cameron Woki in the French ranks, read Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Jamison Gibson-Park, with a hamstring issue for Dan Sheehan a major midweek blow. The crowd could lift Ireland – as a febrile Stade de France did 12 months ago – but Fabien Galthie stressed this week that it’s the men on the field that will decide the outcome.
“We know them and they know us,” the France head coach said. “We have not yet played at the Aviva under these conditions. We played there when it was empty. This time it will be full.
“The Irish public will be their sixteenth man, but they will not be on the pitch. They are not going to push in the scrum, not going to tackle. It will be fifteen men against fifteen men. It’s a question of domination: who is dominant with the ball and who is dominant without it?”
This must surely be the year for Gregor Townsend’s side to finally build on a promising opening weekend. 1996 was the last time Scotland won their first two tournament matches, but after impressing so much at Twickenham last weekend, even the most pessimistic of Scottish followers (and there are plenty) will recognise a great opportunity as Wales visit Murrayfield.
Warren Gatland has responded to a tough start to life back in the Cardiff coaching box with a cull of his senior forwards, with Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and – perhaps most surprisingly – Taulupe Faletau all removed from his starting side. With the trio go 342 Welsh caps, but it is a proactive, forward-looking move from Gatland, tasking a pack of compelling dynamism and the exuberance of youth with bursting the Scottish bubble again.
Scotland’s ruthless efficiency against England rather contrasted with Wales’ string of missed chances, and the two sides are likely to revert closer to the mean in that metric this week – a close game could prey on the vulnerabilities of two sides under very different sorts of pressure.
England victories over Italy have come to be taken as a given by home supporters, which partly explains why there are likely to be empty seats at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon. But this could be a proper challenge as Steve Borthwick’s side find their feet. Italy showed last week that they are prepared to play fearlessly, while their gameplan to counter France was more nuanced and effective than some suggested.
Will that translate to a more competitive showing against a side they have never beaten? Having been nilled in Rome last year, Kieran Crowley’s funky attack will fancy an examination of an England defence so readily exploited by Scotland last weekend.