It couldn’t entirely be classed as debatable to begin with but it looks like the question of whether Jonathan Sexton returning straight into the fold for Ireland after 3 months concussion rehab only ever had one answer. With little change from the team that faced Italy last week Sexton is due to return to the driver’s seat for Ireland this Saturday.
Other changes include Jamie Heaslip coming into the team ahead of Jordi Murphy who drops to the bench, Cian Healy ousting James Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell is unfortunate to miss out entirely in favour of Sean O’Brien but it is the inclusion of Sexton that gives the real feeling that a more complete Ireland will be seen this weekend. Ian Keatley had a good game by all accounts once he settled his nerves in Italy but there’s no overstating just how good Ireland are with Sexton at out half. His fitness doesn’t look like it will be an issue if the feedback from Conor Murray is anything to go on but you would have to fear one thing on his part and the rest of the returning wounded – physicality.
We tend to talk up this part of the game in relation to Italy so much that you would start to convince yourself that the other teams in the tournament simply weave in and out of defensive lines and never front up with ball in hand. As a result, you forget about France (and the rest for that matter, given how physical the game has got in recent years). Ireland have three players coming head first into this fixture against France with one coming back from 2 weeks of an injury layoff, another with 3 months and Sean O’Brien with over a year since he played in green. Not to mention Cian Healy coming back after 5 months. Basically, Ireland could do without their players getting smashed play by play. Crucial to Joe Schmidt’s game plan this weekend, you would think, will be to keep the ball as far away from Mathieu Bastareaud as possible and ensure that Camille Lopez gets little opportunity to kick and allow the pack to chase up the collision. Not that this would be solely based on injury recovered players however, the game plan was always going to change from Italy where kicking was on the menu due to the lack of back field cover Italy throw up and a general lack of a counter attack.
Ireland will look to up the attack too; especially as it is one of the few things we haven’t seen under Schmidt and that is a surprise given his knack for it. Ireland have won the bulk of their games thus far through extremely solid defence and taking counterattack opportunities when they arise. Against France – and particularly against a for once unchanged French side excluding injury – a keen sense of attack and solid set plays will be crucial for Ireland to progress and the somewhat lower than expected points tally against the Azzurri means that Ireland need to pick them up everywhere they can as this tournament progresses unless they can pull off a Slam. A hefty portion of Joe Schmidt’s career will be decided on Saturday as he looks to start the campaign in earnest and potentially become the first coach to notch up back to back Six Nations wins against France since 2001; a feat made all the more significant given that they are pool partners in the World Cup. It can be done, in Schmidt we trust and all that.
Ireland win (just)
Image courtesy of theprimaryplanet.ie