Preview: Ireland v France

Brian O’Driscoll claims that in these World Cup warm-up matches, the “results don’t matter”.

To be honest, I’d much rather he was saying that on the back of victories in Edinburgh & Bordeaux!

Whatever way you look at it, Ireland face France in what is the final opportunity for Declan Kidney to assess his squad before he must name his 30-man squad for the plane to New Zealand. Which makes his selections for both this match and the one for the Irish “Select XV” to play Connacht on Thursday evening in Donnybrook very interesting indeed.

The name that stands out on the team sheet to face the French is Felix Jones. He had a very impressive cameo appearance last weekend, showing if anything a French-like flair in spotting a gap in their defence and exploiting it with a pinpoint kick and blistering follow-up run forcing Yachvilli to kick for touch.

If he can reproduce such form from a starting position, it seems he can oust the experienced Geordan Murphy to the back-up full-back role for the World Cup. I say back-up because I feel Kearney has shown enough in the two matches so far to earn the starting role should he stay fit. In fact we may have seen a clue via a tweet sent by Murphy on Wednesday which suggested he may have played his last game for Ireland – we shall see!

But looking at the side Marc Lievremont has chosen for this Saturday, although there as many as 13 changes to the starting line up, the Munster fullback will have his work cut-out on the defensive front, with the likes of Aurelien Rougerie and Maxime Médard starting – if you’ll recall they combined for the lone French try in the corresponding Six Nations clash back in February.

Elsewhere in the Irish team things are starting to look a lot more familiar. O’Driscoll and D’Arcy reunited in the centre – the latter would surely relish another crack at the French since it was his missed tackle that led to the aforementioned Médard try. O’Connell and O’Callaghan reunited in the second row. Sean O’Brien returning to his favoured blindside flanker role with David Wallace at 7 and Heaslip at the back of the scrum.

One other starter who has earned his place in previous weeks has been Andrew Trimble. Of all the Irish backs to perform so far he has seemed the liveliest and as much as it betrays my Blackrock College & Leinster roots, I have to say I would have him ahead of Luke Fitzgerald in Ireland’s back-three pecking order right now – I’d even consider him to be a good option at centre should the need arise.

Finally a big source of debate has been the choice of starting scrum-half. Or at least it has been a source of debate among Irish fans…Declan Kidney seems to be convinced that Tomás O’Leary is his man.

Though the Munster No9 can be very readable from the base of scrums and rucks (you’d never expect a similar kick into the corner that Yachvilli executed last Saturday, for example) it is clear the coaching staff are relying on his physicality. And it is true, he brings to the table a strong defender who can also act as an extra flanker around the fringes, and could be just the right foil for the likes of Genia, Cooper, Elsom & Pocock.

Personally I have concerns about what a Sexton-led backline will lose with O’Leary at 9, particularly on the timing front which is so crucial to it, but I’ll happily defer to Kidney’s track record!!!

On the bench for Ireland there seems to be a tell-tale selection with the inclusion of Connacht’s Mike McCarthy. It seems the coach was using the previous two matches to find a back-row player who can also slot in at 2nd row, by way of a straight contest between McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan, which the former appears to have won.

Which brings us to the match at Donnybrook on Thursday night. If we assume the 22 to face France have made the squad, add the slightly-injured Kearney & Bowe, plus Paddy Wallace and Leo Cullen, which leaves just four spots left up for grabs.

I think Sean Cronin can take it he is travelling as the 3rd hooker barring injury. The remaining places depend on the split between backs & forwards Kidney is going for. A conventional one is 16 forwards to 14 backs but with so much versatility among our backs, they could opt for 17/13 which means all of the starting back row at Donnybrook – namely Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings and Denis Leamy, might feel they have a chance. I have a feeling the coach would plump for Leamy.

Which leads me to my prediction for Saturday’s test match. Well, last week I went for France because I felt they needed the result more. This week I’m tipping Ireland for exactly the same reason – whatever the captain might say at a press conference, I firmly believe that to a man they will be motivated to say farewell to the Irish fans with a pair of wins against two top northern hemisphere teams.

Couple this with the fact that French teams rarely put in 100% on their travels and I see a home win by a low double-digit margin that will set up the return to Dublin of Martin Johnson’s England the following Saturday all the more interesting.

Well if you can get to Dublin this weekend, even if you can’t make the Aviva Stadium, there’s plenty of live rugby to enjoy as not only is there the match on Thursday at Donnybrook but also on Friday the Heineken Cup Champions Leinster begin their pre-season campaign where they face SupeRugby’s newest team, the Melbourne Rebels who have Stirling Mortlock and Danny Cipriani travelling with them.

I’m heading to the matches on both Friday and Saturday and can’t wait! Be sure and enjoy your rugby wherever you are. JLP

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